Atlas Shrugged: Good Men Are Hard to Find

Atlas Shrugged: Good Men Are Hard to Find February 13, 2015

Rose

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter IX

Dagny gets a letter from Quentin Daniels, the physicist she hired to work on reconstructing the motor. He tells her that he’s reached the end of his rope and that he intends to cease his efforts, because “I do not wish to work in a world that regards me as a slave… I would not take it upon my conscience that anything produced by my mind should be used to bring them comfort.”

When she reads the letter, she frantically calls Daniels, who confirms his decision. She asks to meet with him in person, to try to convince him to keep working (“If that motor is abandoned again, then there’s nothing but Starnesville ahead of us”). He doubts there’s any argument she can give him that he hasn’t already thought of, but he promises to wait for her and give her a chance to persuade him to change his mind.

Making hasty plans to leave for Utah that night, Dagny summons Eddie Willers to her apartment, to give him instructions on how to keep things running while she’s away:

She dictated a list of instructions, while pacing her bedroom, gathering her clothes, hastily packing a suitcase. Rearden had left; Eddie Willers sat at her dressing table, making notes. He seemed to work in his usual manner of unquestioning efficiency, as if he were not aware of the perfume bottles and powder boxes, as if the dressing table were a desk and the room were only an office.

Eddie fills her in on the progress of the new railroad line they’re building to detour around the irreparably destroyed Taggart Tunnel. (Presumably he’s been overseeing this effort while Dagny was off sulking in her cabin in Woodstock, which raises the question of what she needs to give him instructions for if he’s perfectly capable of doing that himself.) As usual, the work is going slowly, since it’s almost impossible to find men competent enough to put in charge on the ground:

“I even tried to get Dan Conway, but—”

Dan Conway?” she asked, stopping.

“Yes. I did. I tried. Do you remember how he used to have rail laid at the rate of five miles a day, right in that part of the country? Oh, I know he’d have reason to hate our guts, but what does it matter now? I found him — he’s living on a ranch out in Arizona. I phoned him myself and I begged him to save us. Just to take charge, for one night, of building five and a half miles of track…. He wasn’t angry. He sounded sad. But he wouldn’t do it. He said one must not try to bring people back out of the grave… He wished me luck. I think he meant it… You know, I don’t think he’s one of those that the destroyer knocked out. I think he just broke by himself.”

“Yes. I know he did.”

Notice that although John Galt is still collecting businessmen for his secret society, he didn’t come for Dan Conway – and apparently never does; Conway is never mentioned again after this point.

What sin caused Dan Conway to be found unworthy of Objectivist Heaven? There’s only one answer suggested by the text: he was taken off the list because he “broke by himself”, that is, he gave in to the will of the majority and surrendered to despair. This would fit with Rand’s earlier expressed view that any emotional weakness or desire for sympathy is a moral transgression, and that the proper response to pain, suffering and depression is to hide them until you can will yourself better. Just think of how much loneliness and misery there’d be in a society that followed this rule!

The mention of Dan Conway reminds Dagny of how desperate their situation is, for which Eddie silently reproaches himself:

He turned back to his note pad, feeling anger at himself, sensing that he had broken his own unstated commandment: Don’t make it harder for her. He should not have told her about Dan Conway, he thought; he should not have said anything to remind them both of the despair they would feel, if they felt. He wondered what was the matter with him: he thought it inexcusable that he should find his discipline slipping just because this was a room, not an office.

… “Send out orders that the Comet is to stop at every division point,” she said, “and that all division superintendents are to prepare for me a report on—”

He glanced up — then his glance stopped and he did not hear the rest of the words. He saw a man’s dressing gown hanging on the back of the open closet door, a dark blue gown with the white initials HR on its breast pocket.

He remembered where he had seen that gown before, he remembered the man facing him across a breakfast table in the Wayne-Falkland Hotel, he remembered that man coming, unannounced, to her office late on a Thanksgiving night — and the realization that he should have known it, came to him as two subterranean jolts of a single earthquake… It was not the shock of the discovery, but the more terrible shock of what it made him discover about himself.

He hung on to a single thought; that he must not let her see what he had noticed or what it had done to him. He felt a sensation of embarrassment magnified to the point of physical torture; it was the dread of violating her privacy twice: by learning her secret and by revealing his own. He bent lower over the note pad and concentrated on an immediate purpose: to stop his pencil from shaking.

I don’t think Ayn Rand intended to send this message, but this chapter just goes to show, again, that Eddie is by far the most decent, humane character in Atlas.

Even using the book’s own metric, namely devotion to one’s job, he’s superior to the protagonists: When Dagny quit in a huff, he stayed and kept the company running for her until she decided to come back. He refused to give up her hiding place in the face of Jim’s fury and threats, knowing it could mean prison for him, only to have his loyalty be for nothing when she came back anyway.

And now he’s realized he’s in love with her. Both Francisco and Hank, in their relationships with Dagny, treat her like a possession: they drag her around, slap her, put her in fear of her life, ignore her wishes, act as if her consent is irrelevant. By contrast, Eddie feels bad about violating her privacy, even accidentally, and he does his utmost to keep his crush a secret, because – wonder of wonders – he cares about her feelings! (“Don’t make it harder for her”).

In a better story, Eddie’s patient faithfulness and simple decency would make him the hero. He’d win Dagny over in the end, as she realizes that he’ll treat her better than any of her rich, arrogant, self-absorbed boyfriends ever did. This is a tried-and-true romantic template. In this book, needless to say, Eddie doesn’t get that happy ending. Dagny never rewards, or even acknowledges, his devotion – she scarcely even seems to notice him, except when she has some task she needs him to perform. He’s been her most loyal companion his entire life, but she seems to regard him as nothing but a useful piece of office equipment. On top of all these insults, his ultimate, tragic fate is really just Ayn Rand twisting the knife.

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