Atlas Shrugged: The Passion of Eddie Willers, Part II

Atlas Shrugged: The Passion of Eddie Willers, Part II April 29, 2016


Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter X

And now, the crowning infamy.

The last time we saw poor, tragic Eddie Willers, he’d set out on a suicide mission to restore Taggart service in California – technically against Dagny’s wishes, but she didn’t make more than a feeble effort to dissuade him. Now, at the very end of the novel, we find out what happened to him:

The locomotive of the eastbound Comet broke down in the middle of a desert in Arizona.

…When Eddie Willers called for the conductor, he waited a long time before the man came in, and he sensed the answer to his question by the look of resignation on the man’s face.

“The engineer is trying to find out what’s wrong, Mr. Willers,” he answered softly, in a tone implying that it was his duty to hope, but that he had held no hope for years.

The astounding thing about Eddie’s mission is that he succeeded. In the midst of “the blind chaos of a civil war” ripping California apart, he “obtained immunity for the terminal from the leaders of three different warring factions” and found a man to put in charge. Then he pulled together a crew to staff a Taggart train and set out on his return trip to New York. But he didn’t get very far before the train breaks down in the sandy wastelands of the Arizona desert, countless miles from civilization.

If this happened to any of the novel’s super-capitalists, they’d solve it with no problem. They’d instantly diagnose the cause of the breakdown, then make a primitive furnace from sand, smelt rocks into ore, and forge a new part to fix whatever was wrong with the train. But Eddie Willers suffers from the disadvantage of being a normal human being, and neither he nor anyone else knows what the problem is: “motors were not his profession, he knew that he did not know and that it was now a matter of life or death for him to discover the knowledge.”

“Let’s try to find what’s wrong,” said Eddie, removing his coat, his voice half-order, half-plea. “Let’s try some more.”

“Yes, sir,” said the engineer, without resentment or hope.

The engineer had exhausted his meager store of knowledge; he had checked every source of trouble he could think of. He went crawling over and under the machinery, unscrewing its parts and screwing them back again, taking out pieces and replacing them, dismembering the motors at random, like a child taking a clock apart, but without the child’s conviction that knowledge is possible.

They soon give this up as hopeless. Since they’re stumped, the only thing left to do is to call for help. Eddie sends the crew to find an emergency phone along the tracks and get in touch with division headquarters to send a mechanic. They make the trek, but return empty-handed:

The conductor returned an hour later, with the fireman, whose face looked oddly grim.

“Mr. Willers,” said the fireman slowly, “Division Headquarters does not answer.”

Eddie Willers sat up, his mind refusing to believe it, yet knowing suddenly that for some inexplicable reason this was what he had expected. “It’s impossible!” he said… “The track phone must have been out of order.”

“No, Mr. Willers. It was not out of order. The line was alive all right. The Division Headquarters wasn’t. I mean, there was no one there to answer, or else no one who cared to.”

Countless hours pass, stranded in the middle of the desert. Then, a minor miracle: they hear the hoofbeats of horses in the night, see the light of lanterns approaching. Like a vision of the past, a primitive caravan of horse-drawn wagons pulls up beside the train. The leader of the caravan beckons to them:

“Hey, bud, can I give you a lift?” called a man who seemed to be the leader; he was chuckling.

… “We’ll make room for everybody! A bit crowded, but moving — better than being left here for coyote fodder! The day of the iron horse is past! All we got is plain, old-fashioned horse! Slow, but sure!”

He invites everyone on board to join the caravan, or else to hitch a ride to wherever they want to be dropped off. Under the circumstances, it seems like a reasonable offer, and the passengers and crew scramble to climb onto the wagons. But Eddie, stubbornly – “like the captain of an ocean liner in distress, who preferred to go down with his ship” – declares that he’s staying behind. The crew tries to reason with him, telling him there won’t be another chance for rescue and that he’ll surely die if he stays, but he refuses to abandon the train:

The men of that caravan — thought Eddie indifferently — looked too mean-minded to become the founders of a secret, free settlement, and not mean-minded enough to become a gang of raiders; they had no more destination to find than the motionless beam of the headlight; and, like that beam, they would dissolve somewhere in the empty stretches of the country.

…The conductor went last. “Mr. Willers!” he called desperately. “Come along!”

“No,” said Eddie.

…He climbed back into the cab — when the wagons jerked forward and went swaying and creaking off into the night. He sat in the engineer’s chair of a motionless engine, his forehead pressed to the useless throttle.

In a final surge of desperate, futile anger, he yanks on pedals and levers, trying uselessly to restart the train. When that fails, he collapses in despair:

When he found that he had collapsed on the floor of the cab and knew that there was nothing he could do here any longer, he rose and he climbed down the ladder, thinking dimly of the engine’s wheels, even though he knew that the engineer had checked them. He felt the crunch of the desert dust under his feet when he let himself drop to the ground. He stood still and, in the enormous silence, he heard the rustle of tumbleweeds stirring in the darkness…

He stepped to the front of the engine and looked up at the letters TT. Then he collapsed across the rail and lay sobbing at the foot of the engine, with the beam of a motionless headlight above him going off into a limitless night.

And that’s it. This is the end of Eddie Willers, the novel’s last word on his fate. We never see him die of thirst or starvation, but it’s impossible to imagine what else could happen to him. He’s stranded and alone in the desert, clinging to a dead train, in a new dark age where civilization no longer exists, and he’s passed up the only chance for rescue he had.

This is a bitter irony, considering that the capitalists sent an entire army to save John Galt – “as many [men] as we had space for on every plane available”. But they never even try to rescue Eddie.

It would have been so easy for Ayn Rand to write a scene where they did. If Dagny had wanted to save him, if she’d chosen to put any effort whatsoever into a search-and-rescue operation, it should have been simple to find him. She knew where he was going and what his plans were, and a train stranded in the middle of the desert ought to be easy to spot from the air. There could have been a scene where, just when all hope seems lost, Eddie hears the drone of an airplane engine in the distance, sees the plane appear over the horizon, then it touches down and lands, and Dagny leans out the door, smiles at the sight of him and holds out a hand.

That would have been the kind of happy ending Rand wants us to believe this novel has. The scene where the cavalry arrives in the nick of time, or the big damn heroes come charging over the dune, is a time-honored dramatic cliché for a reason – it works. Look at how stirring a moment it is in The Two Towers, one of my favorite scenes from the LotR movies:

But no. The cavalry isn’t coming for Eddie. From all textual evidence, Dagny is utterly unconcerned about his fate, despite the fact that they’ve known each other their entire lives. He’s been her best friend since childhood, her faithful right-hand man for as long as she’s been in charge, and she knows that he loves her and is utterly devoted to her, and yet she abandons him to die in the desert.

To be clear, it’s not just that Dagny fails to come and rescue Eddie, although that would be bad enough. It’s that she literally forgets his existence. In the novel’s final scene that follows this one, she never wonders what happened to him, never expresses a flicker of grief or worry or concern. It’s as if he ceased to exist in her mind the moment he was no longer immediately useful to her.

What makes this especially obscene is that Ayn Rand shares Dagny’s unconcern. After she lowers the curtain on Eddie, this is how she writes the transition into the next scene:

He stepped to the front of the engine and looked up at the letters TT. Then he collapsed across the rail and lay sobbing at the foot of the engine, with the beam of a motionless headlight above him going off into a limitless night.

The music of Richard Halley’s Fifth Concerto streamed from his keyboard, past the glass of the window, and spread through the air, over the lights of the valley. It was a symphony of triumph. The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising and they were the rising itself, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive. It was a sunburst of sound, breaking out of hiding and spreading open. It had the freedom of release and the tension of purpose. It swept space clean and left nothing but the joy of an unobstructed effort. Only a faint echo within the sounds spoke of that from which the music had escaped, but spoke in laughing astonishment at the discovery that there was no ugliness or pain, and there never had had to be. It was the song of an immense deliverance.

The next and last scene of the novel opens with a triumphant flourish – as if Eddie’s doom is such a minor footnote that none of the capitalists even notice it, much less express sorrow or gratitude for his sacrifice. There are hundreds of millions of graves at the threshold of the new world they’ve created, and not only is his one of them, it’s unmarked.

Even some Objectivists seem uncomfortable with this supreme callousness on Rand’s part. One Atlas FAQ optimistically insists that “We just don’t know” what happens to him and that his fate is “unresolved”. The FAQ writer claims that this was deliberate, to make the point that the destiny of “ordinary people” like Eddie depends on the actions of “inventive geniuses and leaders” like Galt and Dagny – even though, as I’ve said, none of those people feel the slightest concern for him.

None of this addresses the patently obvious question: Why was Eddie abandoned in the first place? Why didn’t anyone invite him to Galt’s Gulch? Even though he was the kind of hardworking and devoted capitalist you’d think would be welcome there, Dagny never even told him that the place existed. Neither did John Galt, who, don’t forget, absolutely knows who Eddie is: he befriended him and pumped him for information over the course of years, information that was crucial to the success of Galt’s plans. But he, too, never bothered to recruit Eddie for the Gulch.

There’s no in-story reason for this, only an explanation that lies within the attitude of the author. Just as we saw with Cherryl Brooks and Tony the Wet Nurse, two more ordinary and decent characters who were unceremoniously killed off, Rand has no use for normal human beings. It’s only the one-percenters – the richest, most brilliant, and most successful – whom she has any moral concern for. They’re the only ones who matter, in her mind. As for the masses of humanity, she sees them – sees us – as no more than tools, to be used and discarded once we’ve served our purpose. We’re the stepping stones for the capitalists to tread on, the pawns on their chessboard. Our duty is to fulfill their desires and place their wishes above our own. And if some of us have to be sacrificed to clear the way for the ubermenschen to inherit the paradise they deserve, Ayn Rand sees that as fitting and proper, and a price she’s more than willing to pay.

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