Atlas Shrugged: Strawman Has a Point

Atlas Shrugged: Strawman Has a Point January 31, 2014


Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter X

Hank and Dagny’s search for the inventor of the motor has hit a dead end, so they go their separate ways and return to their day jobs. The political climate is growing increasingly socialist and hostile to businessmen, but Hank does his best to get back into a normal routine of running his steel mills during the day and hiding from his family at night:

It was late when he came home and hurried soundlessly up the stairs to his bedroom. He hated himself for being reduced to sneaking, but he had done it on most of his evenings for months. The sight of his family had become unbearable to him…

He closed the door of his bedroom like a fugitive winning a moment’s reprieve. He moved cautiously, undressing for bed: he wanted no sound to betray his presence to his family, he wanted no contact with them, not even in their own minds.

He had put on his pajamas and stopped to light a cigarette, when the door of his bedroom opened. The only person who could properly enter his room without knocking had never volunteered to enter it, so he stared blankly for a moment before he was able to believe that it was Lillian who came in. [p.284]

It’s rich the way Rand writes as if Lillian’s never coming to Hank’s bedroom was by choice. As we’ve been told multiple times, he despises her, wants to know nothing about her life or her interests, and has been purposefully avoiding her for months. No normal person could fail to pick up on these signs and conclude that their presence is unwelcome. For truth’s sake, we just learned that Hank has set up a separate bedroom for himself in his own house. What clearer signal could he possibly send to his wife that he wants nothing to do with her? Can you really blame her for not “volunteering” to be around him under those conditions?

“I know I shouldn’t introduce myself to a stranger,” she said softly, “but I’ll have to: My name is Mrs. Rearden.” He could not tell whether it was sarcasm or a plea.

He asks what she wants, to which she replies:

She laughed. “My reason is so unusual that I know it will never occur to you: loneliness, darling. Do you mind throwing a few crumbs of your expensive attention to a beggar?” [p.284]

This scene is notable, if only because it’s one of the rare occasions in this book where the characters act in ways approximating normal human beings. Of course Lillian is lonely. Why wouldn’t she be? Her husband has all but abandoned her. He just got back from what appears to have been a several-week vacation, without giving her any notice of his whereabouts. Under these circumstances, missing your husband and wishing for a little more of his attention strikes me as a perfectly understandable reaction.

Now, Rand takes it for granted that Lillian’s profession of loneliness is insincere. The message that she wants us to take away from this is that she’s an evil looter who’s only trying to inspire pity in Hank because that’s how she controls him. But even if that’s what she intended, that isn’t the way the scene is written. In fact, it’s remarkable how understated her behavior is; how little of an attempt she makes to shame or guilt him. Her dialogue is poignant, even sweet. Among other things, she says, “I actually came here only because I kept thinking that I had a husband and I wanted to find out what he looked like.”

Lillian has one more argument, and it’s a very good one:

“The side you represent – what is that slogan you all use so much, the motto you’re supposed to stand for? ‘The sanctity of contract’ – is that it?

…Do you want me to remind you that you once swore to make my happiness the aim of your life? And that you can’t really say in all honesty whether I’m happy or unhappy, because you haven’t even inquired whether I exist?” [p.286]

Granted, Rand tries to poison the well by having Lillian say that, in her view, love requires the intentional sacrifice of all your good qualities for the sake of the other person. (All Randian villains believe this.)

Nevertheless, the core of her complaint is completely reasonable. When Hank married her, he swore a vow of fidelity to her, and he’s blatantly ignoring that promise – neglecting her as much as he possibly can, answering her questions with teeth-gritting contempt or mumbled monosyllables whenever he’s forced to spend time with her – simply because he’s met someone else he likes better. And then she brings up an even better point: Hank Rearden is supposed to be one of the good capitalists who believe in voluntary contracts! Does he behave this way in the business world? Would he sign a binding contract with a supplier and then break it if he finds someone else who can give him a lower price?

TV Tropes calls this phenomenon “Strawman Has a Point“: when a story depicts an antagonist’s position as more reasonable than the hero’s, in spite of the author’s intent. It’s a total mystery to me how Rand could be blind to this. Did she really believe that anyone reading this scene would side with Hank rather than Lillian? If so, why? Did she just think it was self-evident that her heroes are entitled to act however they want because of their superior skill at making money?

One more passage I have to highlight, just to complete the picture:

She came closer and, with an amused smile that seemed to mock them both, she slipped her arms around him.

It was the swift, instinctive, ferocious gesture of a young bridegroom at the unrequested contact of a whore – the gesture with which he tore her arms off his body and threw her aside. [p.287]

Let me stress again that this is Ayn Rand’s idea of a hero. He’s a workaholic corporate boss who doesn’t object to child labor and doesn’t think pain or exhaustion are reasons to miss work. He holds his wife and his family in undisguised contempt; he neglects and abandons her; when she tries to touch him, he becomes physically violent. He cheats on her and lies to her about it, and even with his mistress, he’s violently jealous, possessive and controlling.

In any other book, Rearden would be not just the villain, but a laughably cartoonish villain. Yet in this book, we’re expected to sympathize with him. And the only thing he gets in the way of character development, the only lesson he learns, is that he was too sympathetic to his wife and family, that he let himself be stifled by unnecessary pity, and that in the future he should be less conflicted about doing whatever he wants. How is this not the viewpoint of a sociopath?

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