Atlas Shrugged: Cherchez la Femme

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter III

After the disastrous ending of Jim Taggart’s wedding party, Hank drops Lillian off at the train station, telling her he has to stay in New York for some more business appointments the next day. Then he goes straight to Dagny’s apartment for that hot capitalist lovin’ he missed out on earlier. Later, their pillow talk wanders to the subject of Hank’s wife:

“Dagny, what do you think of my marriage?”

“I have no right to think of it.”

“You must have wondered about it.”

“I did… before I came to Ellis Wyatt’s house. Not since.”

“You’ve never asked me a question about it.”

“And won’t.”

He was silent for a moment, then said, looking straight at her, underscoring his first rejection of the privacy she had always granted him, “There’s one thing I want you to know: I have not touched her since… Ellis Wyatt’s house.”

This reads as if it’s Dagny, not Lillian, whose mind Hank wants to set at ease. (It’s so considerate of him to reassure his mistress that he isn’t having sex with his wife.) But while Dagny didn’t ask or care if Hank was still sleeping with his wife, Hank is still demanding a comprehensive catalog of her past lovers. There’s an unusual scene where she rightfully calls him out on his misogynistic double standard:

He bent his face down to hers and she heard the question that had come again and again in the nights of the year behind them, always torn out of him involuntarily, always as a sudden break that betrayed his constant, secret torture: “Who was your first man?”

She strained back, trying to draw away from him, but he held her.

“No, Hank,” she said, her face hard.

The brief, taut movement of his lips was a smile. “I know that you won’t answer it, but I won’t stop asking – because that is what I’ll never accept.”

“Ask yourself why you won’t accept it.”

He answered, his hand moving slowly from her breasts to her knees, as if stressing his ownership and hating it, “Because… the things you’ve permitted me to do… I didn’t think you could, not ever, not even for me… but to find that you did, and more: that you had permitted another man, had wanted him to, had—”

“Do you understand what you’re saying? That you’ve never accepted my wanting you, either – you’ve never accepted that I should want you, just as I should have wanted him, once.”

He said, his voice low, “That’s true.”

The next morning, Hank returns to his rooms at the Wayne-Falkland Hotel, overhearing a radio broadcast about the crash of d’Anconia Copper. He wants to change his clothes and get back to work as soon as he can, but when he opens the door of his suite, there’s an unpleasant surprise waiting for him.

They hit his consciousness together: the breakfast table – the door to his bedroom, open upon the sight of a bed that had been slept in – and Lillian’s voice saying, “Good morning, Henry.”

…As he stood still, she took the time to cross her legs and settle down more comfortably, then asked, “Aren’t you going to say anything, Henry?”

He stood like a man in military uniform at some official proceedings where emotions could not be permitted to exist. “It is for you to speak.”

Unusually for Atlas Shrugged, this is one instance where a villain outsmarts one of the heroes. As Lillian points out, Hank’s being-good-at-everything superpowers seem to have deserted him here. He was scarcely making an effort to hide that he was having an affair; it was easy for Lillian to double back, return to his hotel room and find out that he stayed somewhere else last night. I suppose you could argue that he’s such an unimpeachably honest Randian hero that he’s not used to deception, but shouldn’t such a successful businessman be better at planning for every contingency?

She chuckled, stretching, rubbing her shoulder blades against the chair’s back. “Didn’t you expect to be caught, sooner or later?” she asked. “If a man like you stays pure as a monk for over a year, didn’t you think that I might begin to suspect the reason? It’s funny, though, that that famous brain of yours didn’t prevent you from getting caught as simply as this.” She waved at the room, at the breakfast table. “I felt certain that you weren’t going to return here, last night. And it wasn’t difficult or expensive at all to find out from a hotel employee, this morning, that you haven’t spent a night in these rooms in the past year.”

Lillian demands to know who he’s sleeping with, but Hank refuses to tell her. He also says he has no intention of giving it up. Other than that, he says, he’ll agree to any demand she makes.

“Do you wish to divorce me?”

“Oh, wouldn’t you like that! Wouldn’t that be a smart trade to pull! Don’t you suppose I know that you’ve wanted to divorce me since the first month of our marriage?… No, I’m not going to divorce you. Do you suppose that I will allow your romance with a floozie to deprive me of my home, my name, my social position? I shall preserve such pieces of my life as I can, whatever does not rest on so shoddy a foundation as your fidelity. Make no mistake about it: I shall never give you a divorce. Whether you like it or not, you’re married and you’ll stay married.”

“I will, if that is what you wish.”

Lillian gloats that while the rest of the world still thinks of him as a spotless hero, she knows he’s a liar and a hypocrite, and that now he has no choice but to take her contempt. “I want you to look at me whenever you hear of some act of depravity, or feel anger at human corruption, or feel contempt for someone’s knavery, or are the victim of a new governmental extortion – to look and to know that you’re no better, that you’re superior to no one, that there’s nothing you have the right to condemn.”

In Rand’s moral system, this is proof of Lillian’s utter depravity: that she’s using Hank’s own virtue as a weapon against him, trying to shame him into surrendering his freedom without a fight. Except, she has a point! Hank did break the promise he made to her; he is a liar and a hypocrite. He’s been avoiding her for months, depriving her of affection, becoming physically violent when she tries to touch him, and oh yeah, he cheated on her repeatedly and lied to her about it.

Even if Lillian is an villainous moocher, doesn’t she have every right to be angry at him for this? Isn’t it perfectly normal and understandable that she’d want him to suffer a bit, especially since he’s not remotely apologetic or remorseful about it? But these ordinary human emotional reactions, in Rand’s eyes, are the proof that Lillian is pure evil. Presumably, the proper Objectivist reaction to finding out you’ve been cheated on is to sit there silently, smoke a cigarette and then, I don’t know, go out and stroke a gold bar in the sight of a poor person.

You’re the only one who understands me.

And now, the kicker. If you thought Hank Rearden was already as despicable as a human being gets, prepare to find a new bottom:

When she stopped speaking, he asked, “Have you finished?”

“Yes, I believe so.”

“Then you had better take the train home now.”

When he undertook the motions necessary to remove his evening clothes, he discovered that his muscles felt as if he were at the end of a long day of physical labor. His starched shirt was limp with sweat.

There was neither thought nor feeling left in him, nothing but a sense that merged the remnants of both, the sense of congratulation upon the greatest victory he had ever demanded of himself: that Lillian had walked out of the hotel suite alive.

Yes, you read that right. Hank was giving serious consideration to murdering his wife, because she caught him cheating on her. What was it that stopped him? It certainly doesn’t seem as if it was a moral objection to killing. Was it the practical difficulty of disposing of her body? The knowledge that defending himself in a murder trial would have meant less time to pour steel?

Let me remind you that Hank, a violently jealous misogynist with murderous impulses and no concern for consent, is one of Ayn Rand’s heroes. The only lesson he has to learn, over the course of the novel, is that he cares too much about other people’s opinions; that he lets his sense of obligation to others hold him back too often. The world would be a perfect utopia, we’re told and expected to believe, if only wealthy sociopaths felt absolutely free to do what they wanted without caring about the sanction of others. If Hank had learned that lesson by this point, would this scene have ended with him killing his wife? And would we have been expected to admire him for it?

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: Bare Branches
Atlas Shrugged: Hume's Meadow
Atlas Shrugged: The Colossal Contradiction
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 13
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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