Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter IV
While his wife is away, Jim Taggart has a caller. It’s Lillian Rearden, and she’s come to plead for help. Hank is pressing ahead with a divorce, and by means of rampant subversion of the legal system, he’s winning:
“It’s set for next month. And when I say set, that’s just what I mean. Oh, it’s cost him plenty — but he’s bought the judge, the clerks, the bailiffs, their backers, their backers’ backers, a few legislators, half a dozen administrators — he’s bought the whole legal process, like a private thoroughfare, and there’s no single crossroad left for me to squeeze through to stop it! …He’s going to get the decree and he’s going to cut me off without a penny — no settlement, no alimony, nothing! He’s going to have the last word. Don’t you see?”
Just in case you’re keeping score, Hank Rearden neglected and ignored his wife, cheated on her with another woman, lied to her about it, threatened to beat her when she found out, and is now divorcing her against her will by bribing a judge and everyone else in the courthouse, with the intent of leaving her penniless, hungry and homeless. Yes, she blackmailed him and that was wrong – but in any reasonable moral tally, Lillian is far more sinned against than sinning. What’s more, her blackmail consisted solely of forcing him to allow others to manufacture Rearden Metal a bit earlier than his patent would have allowed. On the “who’s more evil” scoreboard, she’s not even close.
Lillian asks Jim to send word to his friends in Washington to stop the divorce. But Jim refuses, because she’s not offering anything in exchange (“Nobody does favors nowadays, if there’s nothing to gain in return”). Besides, he says, his powerful friends are afraid of Hank: they “have to be mighty careful of your husband — he’s the man who’s safe from them right now — ever since that radio broadcast of my sister’s.” (How does Dagny’s admission of adultery shield Hank from felony obstruction-of-justice charges?)
Jim offers her a drink, and she gets sloppily drunk while musing bitterly about how highly Hank values his honor. This gives both of them an idea, and Jim clumsily seduces her:
They did not speak. They knew each other’s motive. Only two words were pronounced between them. “Mrs. Rearden,” he said.
They did not look at each other when he pushed her into his bedroom and onto his bed… Their faces had a look of secrecy, the look of partners in guilt, the furtive, smutty look of children defiling someone’s clean fence by chalking sneaky scratches intended as symbols of obscenity.
You’ll have to remember, because the text does its best to ignore the parallel, that this is Bad Adultery, as opposed to the Good Adultery that Hank and Dagny had. Lillian willingly participates because she hopes it will hurt Hank’s feelings, whereas Hank had an affair because he just didn’t care about Lillian’s feelings, and that’s apparently supposed to be better?
But while Lillian is there, Cherryl unexpectedly comes home and catches the two of them. She confronts Jim, who’s furious and unrepentant:
“Sure! I was there with a woman! That’s what I did, because that’s what I felt like doing! Do you think you’re going to scare me with your gasps, your stares, your whimpering virtue?” He snapped his fingers. “That for your opinion! I don’t give a hoot in hell about your opinion! Take it and like it!”
Cherryl demands to know why Jim married her, when he could have chosen any amoral looter woman who would have tolerated this treatment and worse. She goads him into admitting that he married her because she wouldn’t put up with it:
“Those girls that you used to buy for the price of a meal, they would have been glad to let their real selves become a gutter, they would have taken your alms and never tried to rise, but you would not marry one of them. You married me, because you knew that I did not accept the gutter, inside or out, that I was struggling to rise and would go on struggling — didn’t you?”“Yes!” he cried.
The revelation hits her with horror: Jim chose her because she had ambition, because she wanted to improve her standing in life, so that he could take sadistic pleasure in crushing her dreams. She screams, and Jim lashes out and strikes her in the face, knocking her down and bloodying her lip.
Again, this is Bad Domestic Violence, as opposed to the virtually-identical Good Domestic Violence that Francisco inflicted on Dagny. (You can tell that it was Bad because the man doing it was a rotund socialist, rather than a slim-hipped capitalist.)
Cherryl runs from their apartment and staggers out onto the street, head spinning, feeling like she’s trapped in a malevolent world that will only punish her more the harder she tries to be good. As she crosses a bridge, she’s approached by a social worker who thinks she’s drunk, and because this is Randworld, berates her rather than offering help: “It’s a disgrace to come to such a state… if you stopped living for your own enjoyment, stopped thinking of yourself and found some higher—” and this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back:
“No! No! Not your kind of world!”
…she ran straight down the street that ended at the river — and in a single streak of speed, with no break, no moment of doubt, with full consciousness of acting in self-preservation, she kept running till the parapet barred her way and, not stopping, went over into space.
And that’s how Cherryl Brooks meets her end. A moment of silence, please.
This is a disturbing pattern that surfaces in the last section of Atlas Shrugged. Every character who works hard and loves money, but who’s merely an ordinary, relatable human being rather than an implausibly superhuman genius like Dagny, Francisco or John Galt, winds up dead. Cherryl is the first, but there will be others. (Alas, poor Eddie.)
There was no chance that Rand would kill off Dagny, or Hank, or Ragnar Danneskjold, or even Ellis Wyatt or Midas Mulligan. She loves her interchangeable Mary Sues too much for that. Besides, it would cast doubt on their repeatedly asserted awesomeness if the looters could get the better of them.
Her solution is the same one that Star Trek uses. She introduces disposable “redshirt” characters in order to kill them off, thereby proving how perilous a situation is, without harming the main characters who have to carry the plot.
But whether Rand intended it or not, this sends a different message, one that most of her readers somehow manage to miss: There’s no room for mere mortals in Objectivist Utopia. Christian rapture fiction, at least, proclaims that even ordinary wretches can be saved if they accept Jesus in their heart. Not so for Ayn Rand’s devotees. John Galt isn’t coming for you, not unless you’re a demigod who can create whole industries with a snap of your fingers. Galt’s Gulch is closed to you, however honest you are and however hard you work, and you’re fated to die in the chaos of the collapsing world while the chosen handful carouse in their mountain hideaway by the light of burning cities.
Naturally, most of Rand’s devotees believe they are the super-capitalists, so this passes them by. It’s the same reasoning by which everyone who believes in reincarnation convinces themselves that they were some great historical personage in a past life.
It’s no good to say that if the capitalists had just been allowed to run things as they pleased, Cherryl would have lived. After all, it’s part of Galt’s plan that civilization meets its doom. Cherryl’s death is of his making, every bit as much as it’s the looters’ fault. Galt and the capitalists consider people like her to be collateral damage, whose deaths will serve as an object lesson. That’s the real lesson of this book, even if most of its readers don’t see it: the world its author envisions is one where you and all the people you care about might be crushed at any time, if someone somewhere at the top believes they can make a point by doing it.
Other posts in this series: