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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Other posts in this series:

The Mormons' Great Leap Backward
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 15
Atlas Shrugged: Kill the Redshirts
Atlas Shrugged: Job Creators
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.