Atlas Shrugged: Kiss with a Fist

Atlas Shrugged: Kiss with a Fist February 6, 2015

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter IX

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Hank Rearden is an awful human being.

He’s jealous, possessive, self-centered and misogynist. He has a short fuse and a violent temper. He makes a point of never caring about anyone’s welfare but his own. He feels contempt and disgust for his family. He cares about nothing but work, is disgusted by charity and socializing. He cheats on his wife, lies to her about it, and threatens to beat her when she finds out.

Obviously, not every character in literature has to be likable. Memorable, emotionally powerful dramas can be written about people who are cruel, embittered, self-destructive, or deeply flawed in other ways. Some of the most memorable literary characters are the ones we feel no sympathy for at all. But usually, when an author crafts a character like this, they don’t expect us to like them. We read the story so that we can witness either their redemption or their downfall.

What’s jarring, from a reader’s perspective, is when the author’s intent clashes with the message their own text conveys. Every decent writer is advised to “show, don’t tell”, and in any other story I can imagine, the repulsive behavior of Hank Rearden would be like a bright neon sign indicating that we should view him as a villain. But in spite of all the evidence – in spite of what her own words show – Ayn Rand clearly wants us to think of him as a great and heroic man.

I’ve mentioned this in the context of strawman has a point-ism, where Rand expects us to disagree with Lillian Rearden even though her arguments are more reasonable than her husband’s. This chapter, however, has a much more disturbing and discordant example.

As you’ll recall from the last installment, Francisco and Hank had a bitter argument over which one of them was the rightful possessor of Dagny, which almost ended with one of them killing the other. But instead, Francisco just barely managed to control himself and left the apartment. That leaves Dagny alone with Hank:

“If there’s something that must be said, say it.” His voice was toneless.

The sound she made was half-chuckle, half-moan — it was not a desire for vengeance, but a desperate sense of justice that drove the cutting bitterness of her voice, as she cried, consciously throwing the words at his face, “You wanted to know the name of that other man? The man I slept with? The man who had me first? It was Francisco d’Anconia!”

She saw the force of the blow by seeing his face swept blank. She knew that if justice was her purpose, she had achieved it — because this slap was worse than the one he had dealt… She saw the protection of control dropping from his face, but he did not care whether he let her see his face alive and naked, because there now was nothing to read in it except an unrevealing violence, some part of which resembled hatred.

He seized her shoulders, and she felt prepared to accept that he would now kill her or beat her into unconsciousness, and in the moment when she felt certain that he had thought of it, she felt her body thrown against him and his mouth falling on hers, more brutally than the act of a beating would have permitted.

She found herself, in terror, twisting her body to resist, and, in exultation, twisting her arms around him, holding him, letting her lips bring blood to his, knowing that she had never wanted him as she did in this moment.

Just because I have to convince myself that this is what the text says, let me restate it: Until the moment when he starts having sex with her instead, Dagny was convinced – “certain” is the word used – that Hank was going to murder her. She was “in terror” of what he was going to do. And even though he decides to have sex with her instead of beating her, the text implies that there’s an extremely thin line between the two, considering that the way he throws her down and and kisses her is “more brutal” than a beating would have been. We’ve already seen that Ayn Rand eroticizes violence in a highly disturbing way, but this scene makes it shockingly explicit.

Granted, this trope isn’t wholly her invention. Atlas Shrugged has a lot in common with “bodice-ripper” romances where forceful seduction of the heroine is the basis of the plot. But while I try not to judge people for their fantasy lives, there’s a difference – a big one – between a fantasy about a woman who puts up a show of resistance but secretly wants to be taken, and this story, where the heroine actually believes that her boyfriend is homicidal but loves and desires him anyway.

If Rand were capable of subtlety, we might infer that this scene was a message about the insidiousness of how domestic abusers control their victims. All the classic elements are there: Dagny is frightened of Hank and convinced he might harm her if she goes against his wishes; he displays extreme jealousy towards other men in her life; he isolates her from friends whom she might reach out to for help; his behavior is unpredictable and violent if she displeases him in any way.

“Why didn’t she just leave?” is a question that always gets asked about abusive relationships, but the implicit blaming of the victim is based on bad assumptions and ignorance of human psychology. Domestic abusers are cunning, manipulative predators whose tactics can create a sense of learned helplessness and dependency, even in victims who are otherwise powerful and resourceful people. If Ayn Rand meant that to be the moral of this scene, it would be a brilliant, subtle piece of writing. But she’s not capable of anything as clever or understated as that. Much to the contrary, this chapter wants us to take the side of the abuser, and to treat his violent behavior not just as appropriate, but as the ideal of masculine honor and desirability. Even more so than the exaltation of selfishness and oligarchy, Rand’s blithe acceptance of domestic abuse as a normal part of romantic relationships is the most nauseating theme of this book.

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