Atlas Shrugged: The Marital Contract

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter II

Following his illegal meeting with Ken Danagger, Hank Rearden is still in his hotel room in New York, eagerly anticipating a night of adulterous sex with Dagny, when he has a surprise visitor:

When the door of his room flew open without warning, he did not quite hear or believe it, at first. He saw the silhouette of a woman, then of a bellboy who put down a suitcase and vanished. The voice he heard was Lillian’s: “Why, Henry! All alone and in the dark?”

…He did not know how long a time passed before he answered, “What are you doing here?”

“Why, don’t you remember that Jim Taggart invited us to his wedding? It’s tonight.”

As she sets her bags down, Lillian glances around the hotel room, her gaze briefly pausing on a filled ashtray. Clearly, she suspects he hasn’t been alone – which, I think you’ll agree, is a reasonable suspicion under the circumstances. When Hank notices, she laughs it off: “Oh but, darling, I’m not relieved! I’m disappointed. I did hope I’d find a few cigarette butts smeared with lipstick.”

“I’m afraid that you’ll never be human,” she said. “So I’m sure that I have no rival. And if I have — which I doubt, darling — I don’t think I’ll worry about it, because if it’s a person who’s always available on call, without appointment — well, everybody knows what sort of a person that is.”

He thought that he would have to be careful; he had been about to slap her face. “Lillian, I think you know,” he said, “that humor of this kind is more than I can stand.”

Just so we’re clear on this, Hank came close to slapping his wife for accurately wondering whether he might be cheating on her. His attitude is basically, “How dare you accuse me of doing something I’m doing!”

A lesser person might call this hypocritical, but if you think so, then that just shows that you’ve failed to understand the higher plane of morality that Rand’s protagonists exist on. Hypocrisy or deceit aren’t charges that apply to them: because they’re good at business, they’re entitled to have all their desires fulfilled, up to and including raping and committing violence; and the biggest moral outrage is when some lowly looter tries to stop one of them from doing something he wants to do.

“You prefer to be serious, Henry? All right. How long do you wish me to exist somewhere in the basement of your life? How lonely do you want me to become? I’ve asked nothing of you. I’ve let you live your life as you pleased. Can’t you give me one evening? Oh, I know you hate parties and you’ll be bored. But it means a great deal to me. Call it empty, social vanity — I want to appear, for once, with my husband. I suppose you never think of it in such terms, but you’re an important man, you’re envied, hated, respected and feared, you’re a man whom any woman would be proud to show off as her husband… Can’t you be strong enough to fulfill your obligation and to perform a husband’s duty? Can’t you go there, not for your own sake, but mine, not because you want to go, but only because I want it?”

We’re supposed to see this as an outrageous imposition, but instead, Rand only manages to provide another case of of strawman has a point-ism. If Lillian were always dragging Hank to frivolous parties, trampling on his desires for where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do, then he’d be right to push back. But that’s not the case: he’s been ignoring her as completely as he can for months, and he intends to do so indefinitely. She’s fully justified in wishing for at least some of his time.

Hank agrees to go to the wedding, with the same sulky tone and barely-disguised contempt he always uses to speak to the woman he married:

He felt the tight, contemptuous movement of his lips pressed together in token of the words he cried to himself: You made a contract once, now stick to it. And then he thought suddenly that in business transactions the courts of law did not recognize a contract wherein no valuable consideration had been given by one party to the other. He wondered what made him think of it. The thought seemed irrelevant. He did not pursue it.

A very good point! A marriage, or any relationship really, is supposed to be a mutual exchange that benefits both partners, and that clearly isn’t the case here. If she wanted to, Lillian would have every right to sue for divorce on the grounds of, say, constructive abandonment, and she could probably take Hank for half of everything he’s worth.

Or does Rand think this is an argument in Hank’s favor? But how could it be? As far as we’re told, Lillian has never turned down anything he’s asked her. If she’s been unable to please him, if she hasn’t given him “any valuable consideration”, it’s because he refuses to give her the opportunity: he won’t speak to her, he won’t spend time with her, he won’t let her into his life. Claiming that this then justifies him violating his marital vows is like a business refusing to accept payment from a customer and then suing on the grounds that no payment was delivered.

The interesting question is how this view of “valuable consideration” applies to the philosophically correct relationships. When Hank gives expensive gifts to Dagny, for instance, he explicitly says that he’s doing it for his own pleasure, not hers – and that if he had bought her those presents with the intent of making her happy, she would have flung them in his face and been right to do so.

The thought of making a binding commitment, of either partner making a sacrifice for the benefit of someone they love, is completely alien to Rand’s philosophy. Given this fact, you’d have to wonder how there could possibly be marriages, let alone families, in an Objectivist world. While marriage can and should be a mutually beneficial exchange that enriches the lives of both people, it’s also a fact that it requires one person to put their partner’s desires first, for the sake of the relationship, at least sometimes. It’s not remotely realistic to expect that two people in a relationship will agree about everything every single time. A true Objectivist, however, would walk out the door every time they faced a tradeoff like that, and would almost certainly be guaranteeing themselves a life of loneliness.

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About Adam Lee

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

  • Errant Endeavour

    So his wife could be thought to act selfishly, when wanting the husband (I honestly don’t care enough about the character to remember his name) to come with her to the wedding.

    When the husband acts selfishly, it’s in line with Randian philosophy, thus it’s fine.

    When the wife acts selfishly, it’s in line with Randian philosophy, ???, it’s not fine fine.

  • Iphigenia

    Devil’s advocate here (and mild spoiler):
    Lillian is a looter, therefore she’s scheming to destroy anyone who’s productive. Whenever she claims to desire Hank’s love and esteem, she’s lying. She’s actually bringing him to the party to show Jim Taggart that she can manipulate her husband to Taggart’s advantage.

  • busterggi

    Marriage works fine Rand-world as long as you remember that corporations are people and are the true spouses.

  • Elizabeth

    Yes, I think Lilian is perfectly logical here. “You are my husband. I haven’t seen you in months. Let’s go to this wedding to keep up appearances and because it will make me happy.” I wonder why Rand didn’t write her more crazy.

  • R Vogel

    Take a peek into Rand’s marriage and see how it worked. By far the creepiest episode in her life…

  • ZMiles

    For me, one of the most ridiculous lines in the book was actually in the paragraph right before the ‘valuable consideration’ one:

    “[Rearden] knew only–as from a great, clear distance–that man exists for the achievement of his desires, and he wondered why he stood here, he wondered who had the right to demand that he wasted a single irreplacable hour of his life…”

    Most people know the answer to that. They’re called ‘bosses,’ and they generally do seem to have the right to tell their employees how to spend a great many of their hours. Only a multimillionaire who doesn’t work for anyone else could expect to spend every waking hour on their own desires. Rearden is whining about having to spend a few hours of his life doing something he doesn’t want out of love, but surely some of his workers–and many workers in general–spend a vast number of hours of their ilves doing things they don’t want, because that’s the only job they could get and they need to eat. And we all know that Rearden would vehemently object to any laws telling him that he’s not allowed, for instance, to obligate someone to work eighty hour weeks–he’d feel its right and employer to take as many of a worker’s hours as he pleases.

    This book really is all about the freedom for multimillionaire to do what they want.

  • Sue White

    Yeah, but she’s asking him to commit the ultimate sin – to do something that would make *her* happy, and not for his own selfish interest.

  • eyelessgame

    There are, of course, by-god for-real books about how to be a loving spouse and Objectivist at the same time. From the reviews on Amazon, they’re … yet another good reason why women are seldom Objectivists. But they provide a bit of explanation why that sort finds common cause with the religious right.

  • Sneezeguard

    The important thing to remember here is that Rand considers Hanks ‘self control’ (his ability not to slap his wife when he really wants to) to be a character flaw.

  • Errant Endeavour

    Thanks, Iphigenia. That does make sense (in Rand’s world).

  • Nemo

    The thing is, I disagree with you on one point Adam. I’m not sure I would approve of Lillian suing Hank for his money. He did earn it, and Lillian getting rich by divorcing him rubs me the wrong way.

  • Alex SL

    Would you be willing to provide a link or two, or the names of the books? I wouldn’t mind having a laugh reading those reviews.

  • eyelessgame

    Sure –

    “The Selfish Path to Romance: How to Love with Passion & Reason, Inspired by the Ideas of Ayn Rand”


    “Objectivist Sexuality: An Outline for Happily Ever After”

    The creepy thing is they have the *same cover art*.

  • The Living Tinman

    I have to disagree with you there. Depending on the contract, the minute they signed their names to that marriage certificate, they became two halves of a whole set. The basis of a lot of states’ marriage laws pertain specifically how property is distributed after the relationship ends. The simplest being 2 people spitting? Split property in half. The more complicated version takes into account access to work, education, and other economic sacrifices that are often made by one parent so the other can progress.

  • Alex SL

    Thanks; sounds as if one of them at least must be really terrible.

  • lawrence090469

    I haven’t read this crap since high school, but I think we are meant to take Hank’s side in the ‘compensation’ question because Lillian is just a lowly Normal, and not a Superman. Though it doesn’t make sense on those terms because Hank apparently made the contract willingly. But these people are never wrong in this world. Rand’s writing about relationships is like some freaky bondage show that takes place in non Euclidean geometry.

  • skyblue

    This reminded me of an article (link to Salon) I read a while ago by a woman raised by an Objectivist father. He eventually asks her, as a high school sophomore, to emancipate herself to avoid child support: “You could work for me at my law firm and pay rent to live here”. I can see where that attitude came from.

  • Bdole

    The only decent response to such a request is patricide. It’d be a mercy killing.

  • Xexilf

    Out of nothing to do and in need for some amusement i just read the descriptions and reviews of both.

    From the looks of it “Objectivist Sexuality” seems to be indeed complete trash, not only following Rands ridiculous views to the bitter end, but also holding completly misgonytic position, stating things like mens bodys being more efficient than womans, how true love for woman is to look up to a man, and so on. Basically Rand plus anti feminism.

    The other one (Selfish Path to romance) on the other hand sounds … almost … reasonable, seemingly trying to temper rands madness into something workable, like *gasp* that in a romantic relationship one might have to balace ones own wants with that of the partner and such. Not sure what to make of the whole thing, but the author sounds at least sane.

    Mind you, this is all just from reading the description and reviews.

  • David Cortesi

    I think you misread this, a little. Rearden’s almost-slap-worthy anger is not, as I read it, due to Lillian accusing him of cheating; in fact she says she doubts that he is. But she strongly insinuates that if he is cheating, it’s with a whore (“everybody knows what sort of a person that is”). So she has insulted the Stainless Dagny. That’s why he nearly slaps her.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    “Given this fact, you’d have to wonder how there could possibly be marriages, let alone families, in an Objectivist world.”

    I don’t know, but I am halfway tempted to sign up for “The Atlasphere,” an online dating site dedicated to “connecting admirers of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.”

    Who knows what kind of stimulating conversations a fella might have there? Well, conversations with the presumably 5% of site members who are women, that is.

  • Dave Lerner

    Creepier than her admiration for the child killer, William Edward Hickman?

  • Jason Sartin

    And yet if that explanation is correct, even THAT action would (forgive the pun) smack of hypocritical altruism. For it would leave Hank resorting to violence to defend the honor of someone other than himself, would it not? Did he not explicitly state earlier that he cares nothing for Dagny’s well-being?

  • Greg Lively

    I find the fact that they share cover art less creepy than the blatantly possessive/submissive poses of the man and woman, respectively. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against consensual BDSM, but seeing that artwork, combined with Rand’s ideas about how a relationship would work, gives me the willies.

  • X. Randroid

    I’m going to go with yes, on the grounds that her creepy admiration for Hickman did not end up hurting anyone. The same cannot be said of her creepy approach to marriage.

    Regardless of degree, I think both are expressions of the same sociopathic mindset. The affair was what she wanted, so she went after it, with no thought or concern for what it would do to anyone else, just as she expressed no thought or concern for the victims of Hickman’s crimes.

  • X. Randroid

    To the extent Objectivists make their marriages work (which is not all that high), they do it by convincing themselves that things their partner wants are in their own self-interest. This allows them to do things for their partner without thinking of it as sacrifice. It’s usually more rationalization than rationality, but whatever works, right?

  • X. Randroid

    Or maybe he’s defending his own honor, since the other implication of Lillian’s comment is that Hank is the sort of person who would sleep with a whore. :-)

    Actually, yeah, he’s defending Dagny’s honor, not his own.

    We’ll see this same problem of taking risks to defend someone a character loves come up again later (at least twice that I can think of). Rand wants to have it that somehow when you love someone, defending them is tantamount to defending your own life. Her theory goes roughly that when you love someone, that means you value them, and values are the essence of life, so defending your values is a form of defending your life. (Yes, this poses problems for her egoism, but she skates right over them.)

  • Adam Lee

    Hmm, good point. You may be right about that. Even so, I’m not certain what grounds Hank has to be angry about it. Even if Lillian is insulting Dagny, she doesn’t know she’s doing so.

    Besides which, I think it’s more than a little unfair to get angry at your wife for saying harsh words about the woman you’re cheating on her with…

  • BeaverTales

    From what I remember, she married Frank O’Connor after meeting him on a Hollywood soundstage because she knew him instantly: he had that “angular” look that her exalted heroes of industry and conscience all had…even though he wasn’t much of a provider or an intellect. The first objectivist rent-boy.

    And then there were the allegations that he only consented to the open marriage because he was too spineless to stand up to her, something that doubtlessly deeply disappointed her. The open marriage was purely for her own convenience, not his. She was one of the first cougar prototypes, and one who could never be satisfied having dominion over just one man… especially one guilty of falling victim to the ravages of time and soft living.

    Finally, could your reference to “creepy” be due to the fact that she modeled her life after her writing, rather than basing her writing on her life? Or the fact that so many people bought into her unique universe that she was able to delude herself into thinking she had conquered her own human emotion and frailty itself?

  • eyelessgame

    Those were almost exactly the reactions I had. Some of the “Selfish Path” sounded a little like what real therapists say – because one of the failure modes for a relationship is forgetting that you need to recognize, and clearly communicate, your own wants and needs – you have to be aware of what you want *as well as* hearing what your partner wants.

    So maybe it’s a real attempt to make Objectivists less sociopathic.

  • X. Randroid

    “So maybe it’s a real attempt to make Objectivists less sociopathic.”

    Yeah, it is that, although its authors wouldn’t put it that way. Haven’t read the book, but I knew both Kenner and Locke in my Randroid days and heard them speak on the subject. My overall impression is that their approach to psychology (particularly Kenner’s) owes a lot more to CBT than to Rand. It’s a far cry from the 1960s version of “Objectivist psychotherapy,” an attempt to reconcile Rand with actual human psychology.

  • X. Randroid

    Rand often forgets to distinguish between what she (the all-knowing and all-powerful author) knows and what her characters know.

  • Laughing Giraffe

    Obviously it depends on the couple. However, in a sociological sense, once two people are married, they are both considered by law to be contributing to a single enterprise. One couple I’m friends with, for example, has one spouse who is working on a PhD and another who works from home. It is assumed that, once the former has completed the PhD (which consumes a great deal of time), that increased financial contributions will result. In the meantime, the work-from-home spouse does more housework, cooking, etc, that permits the future academic to focus on getting that degree. If they were to divorce in a few years, it certainly wouldn’t be the case that the spouse with the doctorate earned the money completely without contribution from the other.

  • Azkyroth

    She was one of the first cougar prototypes

    Probably not.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    “You could work for me at my law firm and pay rent to live here”.

    Sounds like moocher nepotism to me. He should have taken a lesson from Hank Reardon, who refuses to let his own brother work for him on the grounds that he “wouldn’t be worth a nickle to me”.

    The Objectively correct solution is to let the daughter fend for herself; if she needs help, she clearly doesn’t deserve it.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    When I first looked at it, I thought the woman’s hands were literally shackled behind her back. I’m still not sure that isn’t the case.

  • BeaverTales

    I’m far from the first person with an interest in Ayn Rand’s cult… umm, I mean “place in history” to say this:

    Identifying Patient Zero in an epidemiological study is the Holy Grail. Researchers believe they know who Patient Zero was for HIV/AIDS, and for the recent 2009 H1N1 Flu. Who was Cougar Zero?

    More on Rand’s bizarre bullying and marriage mischief:

  • Donalbain

    But why would “whore” be an insult in Randland? Surely it is a rational choice to provide sex in exchange for money.

  • R Vogel

    I was going to say something very similar. Form what I have read she romanticized Hickman and added considerably to the story using her goofy philosophical world view. It was more of a twisted Objectivist fantasy. The marriage thing, where she exploited young devotees in the name of her goofy philosophical world view seems to take it to another level. But perhaps the willingness to set her fantasy to action in the latter makes the former all the more creepy…

  • J-D

    Thanks for providing a source that sets out your case in enough detail to confirm that it’s tripe.

  • BeaverTales

    Something I said was demonstrably false?

    Or was that an attempt at displaying wit?

    Because I don’t see anyone else who is using evidence for their assertions about what her relationship with Nathaniel Branden was about.

  • J-D

    First point: the blogger you cite writes ‘I don’t find the age differences unsettling, and I don’t care which gender is older’ but then goes on to cite the (baseless) ‘half plus seven rule’ as a guide to which relationships are ‘acceptable’. Why? And with a graph yet! This is not somebody who is making a well-constructed argument.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    That understanding of “self-interest” seems broad enough that just about anything could be so construed.

  • BeaverTales

    This “half plus seven” rule he cites is how he defines a cougar relationship, and he’s at least honest enough to admit there’s no basis for it. That’s his personal opinion that I don’t share…it wasn’t the part of the post I wished to highlight.

    The blogger is Catholic and I’m an atheist….I’m not endorsing everything or anything that blogger (or any blogger) says, except for the part where he talks about Ayn Rand specifically.

    I’m saying that she is one of the first of our modern (and ill-defined) definitions of “cougar”, and calling her that goes back to at least 2009…and I agreed with the blogger on the fact that she’d rather shit on her own legacy at the NBI than tolerate her younger, prettier lover Making the Beast with Two Backs with another younger, prettier woman. It shows how much she really cared about her own Objectivism.

  • J-D

    If you mean that Ayn Rand was one of the first women to have a sexual relationship with a significantly younger man, that isn’t true, but even if it were, so what? There’s nothing wrong with a woman having a sexual relationship with a significantly younger man.

    But maybe I have misunderstood you and you actually meant something different.

  • BeaverTales

    Cleopatra, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Catherine the Great were powerful women who preceded Ayn Rand by centuries in exploitative, selfish relationships with younger men…and there are many more instances in history of older men taking advantage of vulnerable younger women. That’s not new or even noteworthy.

    I’m talking about how she was one of the first cougars in its modern context of American society…one that supposedly values equal power between men and women in professional relationships…who should be free of sexual harassment and intimidation by their more powerful colleagues.

    As I mentioned, “cougar” is ill-defined in popular culture, but the concept of some women using unequal power to pressure younger and weaker peers into inappropriate (and not merely unconventional) relationships is not. It’s a shame that there isn’t an equivalent definition for men, who do it far more often. “Douchebag” will have to suffice.

  • J-D

    I’m still not confident I’ve understood you correctly.

    Maybe you’re saying that Ayn Rand had a sexual relationship with a man characterised by inequality at a time when the idea of equality between men and women in professional relationships was fresh.

    If that’s what you’re saying, it may be so, but in that case I don’t see why you’d make an issue of the time at which it happened. Are you perhaps suggesting that the historical context somehow makes the exploitative nature of the relationship worse? But how? If historical context is relevant, surely an exploitative sexaul relationship now, when the idea of equality in relationships is more familiar, would (if anything) be worse?

    Or am I still misunderstanding you?

  • BeaverTales

    Not sure how I can make myself clearer, unless you’re looking for some additional hidden meaning other than what I’m saying in print. I’ll try one more time.

    I do consider her 1950′s-near 70s relationship with Branden to be part of the Modern Age (1960s onward- definitions will vary). Given how so many Objectivists think her philosophy is especially applicable to the Modern Age, she had some pretty regressive ideas on how “producers” should treat each other, and some pretty abominable personal behavior that likely is closely related to her famous worldview.

    And I would say the exact same thing if she were a man, and inclusive of all sexual orientations. However, in my exchange with you, I’ve realized it’s remarkable that we have a specific name (cougar) for the rarer situations where women exploit younger and more vulnerable (fe)male colleagues sexually, and no similar adjective for the more common situation where men do it. Welcome to the patriarchy, I guess……

  • J-D

    If Ayn Rand behaved abominably in her relationships with men, the behaviour wasn’t any more abominable because of the time at which it took place. If her behaviour discredits her theories, it doesn’t discredit them any more thoroughly because of the time at which it took place. So I don’t understand why you keep harping on the issue of timing.

    And since you don’t assert that the relative age of Ayn Rand’s sexual partners is what you’re condemning her for, I don’t understand why you keep harping on the issue of age.

  • L.J. Lim

    I’m guessing Dagny never told Hank about how her much-admired great-grandpappy Nathaniel Taggart offered his wife as collateral for a loan.

  • Science Avenger

    “Just so we’re clear on this, Hank came close to slapping his wife for accurately wondering whether he might be cheating on her.”

    I believe his motive was defending Dagny’s honor from Lillian basically calling her a whore, which adds another level of weirdness.

  • Jason K.

    I’m not sure I would approve of Lillian suing Hank for his money…

    Except it isn’t “his” money. It’s their money.

  • Azkyroth

    It’s specifically the “first” I’m taking issue with.

  • Azkyroth

    Given the description of their sexual dynamic, maybe he’s angry that she’s “doing his job for him?”

  • X. Randroid

    And that is exactly how many Objectivists manage to navigate through life, not just marriage. It is not that hard to convince yourself that it’s in your interest to do things you don’t want to do; you just reframe it. For instance: I can’t stand my boss, but I want/need the money, therefore putting up with my boss (and not, say, slapping him into next week) is in my interest … at least until I can figure out how to get a better job.

  • aa

    She’s not “scheming to destroy producers”, she’s “controlling” Rearden using Rearden’s own sense of duty. She trades with Jim this “power to control Rearden”. In the novel Lilian does not love nor desire Rearden, she just uses him to her convenience.

  • Metalix Knightmare

    I just wanna know one thing, why the hell did Hank even marry this woman if he hates her so damn much? Did he knock her up at some point or something? Was it arranged between their families?

  • GCT

    Yes, because Rand takes it for granted that anyone who isn’t one of her ubermensch is really just a moocher that hates life and is out to destroy everyone and everything. It’s soooooo realistic that way.

  • J-D

    So how is that different from Hank using Dagny for his own convenience? I mean, isn’t that what he does? It would strike me as weird to say that it’s acceptable to use for your own convenience the people that you love or desire, but not the people you don’t.

  • Margaret Marquez

    i read this novel decades ago—i remember lillian has a hidden agenda—she is out to destroy her husband, and has been from the beginning—and ends up having an affair with james taggart, dagny’s brother

  • Margaret Marquez

    randian relationships are indeed a freaky bondage show