Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter VIII
Francisco is just beginning to let Dagny in on the secret of the capitalists’ strike, when the two of them are interrupted by some emergency exposition:
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the panic-pregnant voice of a radio announcer, breaking off the chords of the symphony, “we interrupt this broadcast to bring you a special news bulletin. The greatest disaster in railroad history occurred in the early hours of the morning on the main line of Taggart Transcontinental, at Winston, Colorado, demolishing the famous Taggart Tunnel!”
Her scream sounded like the screams that had rung out in the one last moment in the darkness of the tunnel.
… “The details of the story were obtained from Luke Beal, fireman of the Taggart luxury main liner, the Comet, who was found unconscious at the western portal of the tunnel this morning, and who appears to be the sole survivor of the catastrophe. Through some astounding infraction of safety rules… the Comet, westbound for San Francisco, was sent into the tunnel with a coal-burning steam locomotive… The tunnel’s ventilation system was not designed to provide for the heavy smoke and fumes of coal-burning locomotives — and it was known to every railroad employee in the district that to send a train into the tunnel with such a locomotive would mean death by suffocation for everyone aboard. The Comet, none the less, was so ordered to proceed. According to Fireman Beal, the effects of the fumes began to be felt when the train was about three miles inside the tunnel. Engineer Joseph Scott threw the throttle wide open, in a desperate attempt to gain speed… when some passenger, prompted undoubtedly by the panic of choking, pulled the emergency brake cord. The sudden jolt of the stop apparently broke the engine’s airhose, for the train could not be started again. There were screams coming from the cars. Passengers were breaking windows. Engineer Scott struggled frantically to make the engine start, but collapsed at the throttle, overcome by the fumes.
Fireman Beal leaped from the engine and ran. He was within sight of the western portal, when he heard the blast of the explosion, which is the last thing he remembers. The rest of the story was gathered from railroad employees at Winston Station. It appears that an Army Freight Special, westbound, carrying a heavy load of explosives, had been given no warning about the presence of the Comet on the track just ahead… It appears that the Freight Special had been ordered to proceed regardless of signals, because the tunnel’s signal system was out of order.
…What is known is that the Freight Special crashed into the rear of the Comet. The explosion of the Special’s cargo… brought down such a weight of rock upon the tunnel that rescue parties have not yet been able to come within three miles of where either train had been. It is not expected that any survivors will be found — and it is not believed that the Taggart Tunnel can ever be rebuilt.”
This is the second time Francisco has tried to let one of the heroes in on the big secret, only to be interrupted by a sudden emergency. He’s not very good at this, is he?
If this description of the disaster reminds you of something, there’s a good reason for that. Take another look at the crucial passage:
“It appears that an Army Freight Special, westbound, carrying a heavy load of explosives, had been given no warning about the presence of the Comet on the track just ahead… the Freight Special had been ordered to proceed regardless of signals, because the tunnel’s signal system was out of order.”
When we first met Dagny, she was on a train stuck at a broken stop signal. The crew was worried about the danger, but she ordered them to ignore the signal and proceed because she didn’t want to be late – and of course, because this is an Ayn Rand novel and Dagny is a True Capitalist, everything was just fine.
The train-wreck scene was meant to demonstrate the disastrous results when True Capitalists aren’t permitted to be in charge and to give the right orders. Instead, it only further demonstrates the unreality of this book. The True Capitalists succeed not because they’re smarter or more competent, but solely because the author is on their side and is scripting events so that fortune always favors them. When Dagny or Hank makes a risky decision, it succeeds brilliantly; but when one of the villains makes the same decision under the same circumstances, it blows up in their faces.During the last few election cycles, liberal blogs coined the acronym IOKIYAR – “It’s OK If You’re a Republican” – to describe conservative politicians who excoriate progressives for supposed moral failings that they ignore when their own side displays them. You can draw a similar message from this scene: It’s OK if you’re a Randian.
When Dagny hears the broadcast, she immediately runs for her car, ignoring Francisco’s pleading with her not to go back. We cut to New York, where every newspaper is blaring about the disaster and Jim Taggart is cornered, terrified and furious:
The door to the office was open: he saw the sky in the great windows beyond an empty desk. Then he saw the staff in the anteroom around him, and the blond head of Eddie Willers in the glass cubbyhole. He walked purposefully straight toward Eddie Willers, he flung the glass door open and, from the threshold, in the sight and hearing of the room, he screamed: “Where is she?”
… “I cannot tell you.”
“Listen, you stubborn little punk, this is no time for ceremony! If you’re trying to make me believe that you don’t know where she is, I don’t believe you! You know it and you’re going to tell me, or I’ll report you to the Unification Board! I’ll swear to them that you know it — then try and prove that you don’t!”
There was a faint tone of astonishment in Eddie’s voice as he answered, “I’ve never attempted to imply that I don’t know where she is, Jim. I know it. But I won’t tell you.”
Jim berates and threatens Eddie, who refuses to budge, calmly confident that Dagny is better off gone no matter what happens to him. But it turns out that Eddie’s faith is tragically misplaced:
“You won’t find her,” he said, “She won’t be back. I’m glad she won’t. You can starve, you can close the railroad, you can throw me in jail, you can have me shot — what does it matter? I won’t tell you where she is. If I see the whole country crashing, I won’t tell you. You won’t find her. You—”
They whirled at the sound of the entrance door flung open. They saw Dagny standing on the threshold.
…Yet their first response, ahead of shock or wonder, was a single emotion that went through the room like a gasp of relief. It was in all their faces but one: Eddie Willers, who alone had been calm a moment ago, collapsed with his face down on his desk; he made no sound, but the movements of his shoulders were sobs.
Her face gave no sign of acknowledgment to anyone, no greeting, as if her presence here were inevitable and no words were necessary. She went straight to the door of her office; passing the desk of her secretary, she said, her voice like the sound of a business machine, neither rude nor gentle, “Ask Eddie to come in.”
Dagny doesn’t even deign to notice, much less acknowledge, the way she just crushed her best friend’s faith in her. Again, IOKIYAR is in full effect here. (There’s a brief line later on which implies that she’s aware of it, but she offers no words or gestures of apology or compassion, since this is something Randian protagonists aren’t good at.)
But if you can get past the seemingly pointless spite in the way Rand tortures Eddie in this scene, you may notice something else: Dagny quit her job in a huff when Directive 10-289 was handed down, but Eddie never did! He stayed in the office, patiently working without complaint this whole time, doing his best to keep everything running while Dagny was gone. If devotion to one’s job is the principle that Rand values highest, then by right he ought to be the hero of this book. As we’ll see later, Rand has a very different fate in mind for him.
Other posts in this series: