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Atlas Shrugged VI: The Ballad of Hank Rearden

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Pgs 22-29

“The metal came rising to the top of the ladle and went running over with arrogant prodigality. Then the blinding white trickles turned to glowing brown, and in one more instant they were black icicles of metal, starting to crumble off. The slag was crusting in thick, brown ridges that looked like the crust of the earth. As the crust grew thicker, a few craters broke open, with the white liquid still boiling within.”

I’ll give it to Rand. That’s a damn pretty piece of writing. Say what you will about the woman (And I plan on saying a LOT) she can find the rough beauty in the industrial world.
Which it its way is half the problem. The best lies, they say, are those that have a core of truth at the center. And Rand finds some truth. There is nobility in doing honest work. There is something grand about tons of steel spun through midair by brave strong men who build and create.
The Seven Deadly Sins are so deadly precisely because they start out as virtues. Gluttony starts out as an honest love of the pleasures the world has to offer, and only later becomes twisted into sin. Pride starts out as nothing more than healthy self-esteem, taken too far. And in a similar way, Rand seizes on good things and twists them.
Let me shock all the libertarians reading this. I like the free market. Hell, I love the free market. When regulated and controlled, capitalism is a good thing, a great thing. The power that allows steel mills to rise, cities to sprawl across the globe, is the power of progress. And the love of building things is a true and honest love.
But that is only where Rand begins. In her hands, the love of creation becomes a weapon. In Rand’s world, creating and building are not pleasures, but desperate blows against a cruel and oppressive world. And her creations are twisted by this obsession. Hank Rearden cannot simply love to create. Love of his business must be his only love. He has to cut out everything else. All other beauty, all other loves, are not only subservient to his mills, they are obliterated.
And it has made him terribly, terribly sad:
“Ever since he could remember, he had been told that his face was ugly, because it was unyielding, and cruel, because it was expressionless. It remained expressionless now, as he looked at the metal. He was Hank Rearden.”
A man who never smiles, a man who never shows any expression, is rarely a happy man. And there is something pathetic in that passage, a man who has been denied love turning to one thing he can do well. One thing that makes him happy.
And I’ll make another confession. I like Hank Rearden. In this whole damn novel, he’s the only person who ever acts like a human being. A human being with a sequoia firmly implanted in his nether regions, true, but a human being nonetheless. Galt is a messianic figurehead, there to be dramatic and say pithy things about Aristotle. Dagny is….unpleasant. Eddie is there to show what happens to you when you’re not quite good enough (hint: the people you’ve served all your life throw you to the wolves.) But Rearden is a real person, a real character, and even though he’s not the best, he’s such a welcome relief in this novel I can’t help but love him.
There is a bit more lovely writing- descriptions of a young struggling Rearden making his first steel mill out of nothing, and, again, there is that deceptive Horatio Alger charm. This is a story we are familiar with. Poor Boy Makes Good on nothing but wit and brains. Most delightful, most familiar. And because it is familiar, we instinctively fill in the little details. We know Hank. We’ve met him a dozen times before, and where Rand’s grasp of the formula fails, we fill in the blanks for her. And we are predisposed to like these people. And so we like Rearden. Even filled out with the stale details of stereotype, he is at least three-dimensional.
And there is another thing about Rearden. He cares. He doesn’t care in the weak and wibbling sort of way that Eddie does, or have the blank uncaring of Dagny. This is a man who honestly loves people.

“He felt that he could forgive anything to anyone, because happiness was the greatest agent of purification. He felt certain that every living being wished him well tonight. He wanted to meet someone, to face the first stranger, to stand disarmed and open, and to say, “Look at me.” People, he thought, were as hungry for a sight of joy as he had always been-for a moment’s relief from that gray load of suffering which seemed so inexplicable and unnecessary. He had never been able to understand why men should be unhappy.”

Read that thoroughly un-Randian passage. Here is Hank Rearden, steel magnate, thinking, in a vague and inconsequential fashion, that he’d like to make other people happy. And that’s why we love him. Even though we know we’ll see this common decency beaten out of them, for a moment, this is a happy man, filled with the great joy of success, and wishing nothing but good to everyone.
Of course, all good things must come to an end.

“He touched the bracelet in his pocket. He had had it made from that first poured metal. It was for his wife…”

Awww! How sweet! Ten years of work, and the first thing he thinks to make with this metal he’s poured so much sweat into is something for his wife. Well, she must be a hell of a woman, right? To be so on his thoughts that in the moment of his greatest triumph, his thoughts turn to her.

“Then she turned her head, looked at Rearden in the shadows across the long room, and her arms spread gracefully, like two swan necks by her sides.
“Why, darling,” she said in a bright tone of amusement, “isn’t it too early to come home? Wasn’t there some slag to sweep or tuyeres to polish?”

Charming. Rand doesn’t have a Madonna/whore complex. She has a Madonna/bitch complex. Every woman she writes is either a Dagny or…whatever this is supposed to be. No one talks like that. No one acts like that. Does it get worse? Does the Pope shit in the woods?

“Lillian Rearden was generally regarded as a beautiful woman. She had a tall, graceful body, the kind that looked well in high-waisted gowns of the Empire style, which she made it a practice to wear. .. But when she turned full-face, people experienced a small shock of disappointment. Her face was not beautiful. The eyes were the flaw: they were vaguely pale, neither quite gray nor brown, lifelessly empty of expression. Rearden had always wondered, since she seemed amused so often, why there was no gaiety in her face.”

Oh! She’s supposed to be the cold, high-society chick and of course, Rearden will find love with the innocent but hard working Other Woman.

And here’s the problem. There are three interesting things going on here: Rearden meets his brother, Lillian plans a party, and Rearden gives her the bracelet. Today, for brevities sake, I’ll just finish off the bit about the necklace. Next time, though, I want to discuss Philip and Lillian in greater detail. For now, however, lets wrap this painful little scene up.

“”I brought you a present, Lillian.”
He did not know that he stood straight and that the gesture of his arm was that of a returning crusader offering his trophy to his love, when he dropped a small chain of metal into her lap.
Lillian Rearden picked it up, hooked on the tips of two straight fingers, and raised it to the light. The links were heavy, crudely made, the shining metal had an odd tinge, it was greenish-blue.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“The first thing made from the first heat of the first order of Rearden Metal.”
“You mean,” she said, “it’s fully as valuable as a piece of railroad rails?”
He looked at her blankly.
She jingled the bracelet, making it sparkle under the light. “Henry, it’s perfectly wonderful! What originality! I shall be the sensation of New York, wearing jewelry made of the same stuff as bridge girders, truck motors, kitchen stoves, typewriters, and-what was it you were saying about it the other day, darling?-soup kettles?”
“God, Henry, but you’re conceited!” said Philip.
Lillian laughed. “He’s a sentimentalist. All men are. But, darling, I do appreciate it. It isn’t the gift, it’s the intention, I know.”

Damn. I mean…damn. That’s a crushing blow. Ok, I’ll grant, as far as great gifts go, bracelet of metal doesn’t do much, and maybe he could’ve jazzed it up a little, but, sweet Jesus, that’s cold.
And that’s why Hank Rearden is the only real human being in this novel. The others were born to privilege and wealth. Francisco, Dagny…Galt was not born rich, but is instead a super-genius of some fashion.
Hank is just Hank. He’s the poor boy who made it good. He’s the guy who works and sweats and slaves because he honestly believes this is a good world. The cynicism of Galt and Francisco is disgusting to see. Rand tries to disguise it, but it is nothing more than the lowest form of aristocratic contempt for the proles. There are the chosen few, and then there are the hordes of slaves. Hank doesn’t have that though. He wants to make people happy, he wants to take care of his family. He wants in other words, other things. A life beyond mills and metal.
But that isn’t permitted. That isn’t the party line. And so, for the next nine hundred pages, this book is the Tragedy of Hank Rearden. Of a decent, hardworking man corrupted, beaten, mistreated and spurned until he lashes out at the world in a cynical orgy of destruction.
In Dagny, in Galt, this is disgusting. In Rearden, it is tragic. It is like the collapse of one of his buildings- something old and grand and noble slowly torn down and reshaped until the kind man who makes bracelets for his wife is lost.


Written by newscum

December 6, 2010 at 8:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

14 Responses

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  1. Excellent writeup and criticism. This is about the only way I’m ever going to be able to read Atlas Shrugged without going “Eccch!” in distaste at Rand.


    December 6, 2010 at 8:19 am

  2. Wow. I feel almost as bad for Hank Rearden in an Ann Rynd novel as I do for Hattie Durham in a LaHaye novel.


    December 6, 2010 at 6:07 pm

  3. It just so happens that today I started reading The Trouble With Billionaires, and I have to say that Linda McQuaig is something of the Anti-Rand. One of the things she points out is that for the privileged, the things that help them along every day are invisible, and only the hindrances stand out.

    In the second chapter, she’s taken out two myths popular with big-business apologists: the “Free Market” and the “Self-Made Individual”. Libertarians love to talk about The Market as though it’s a force of nature, when in reality it’s a social construct made possible by thousands of laws about currency, labour, incorporation, etc., etc. Likewise, the achievements of an individual, even a truly brilliant one, are only possible because of the society which nurtured them and provided things for them to build on, all the way back to the creation of language and the wheel.

    Where would Hank Rearden be without parents to raise him, schools to teach him, previous inventors to provide everything from the lever to the factory, and a government to create and enforce laws about patent and property ownership? Dead in the water, that’s where.


    December 7, 2010 at 3:26 am


    Sorry, I’m a bit of a major fan because her books have always been so insightful, and provide illuminating methods of how another world might operate.

    I still remember her Cult of Impotence book so well, primarily because for the first time I understood how to get rid of the dilemma of wealthy people taking their balls away like sulky kids at marbles:

    Controls over capital flows.

    I mean, it just blew my mind because I had no idea they had ever existed. Talk about a transformative experience in my mind.

    The only other book that has gotten close in recent memory was Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, which showed me, once and for all, that grand unified theories did and could show the way to quantum gravity. Before then I had never really countenanced the notion of the successful unification of GR and QM.

    Incidentally, she mentions Karl Polyani’s book in another volume of hers, and I went and got it and began reading it. His book goes into a fascinating story about the Speenhamland system in the United Kingdom, and for all its defects it was the first attempt at some kind of quasi-socialist wage-replacement system for people too poor to be able to buy bread otherwise.


    December 7, 2010 at 6:22 am

  5. Finally got the chance to read this, and you’re right, that’s some pretty writing.

    But I’m puzzled. We have two people both rendered “ugly” by their lack of expression.

    Now I wonder what has robbed Lillian’s soul of “gaiety.” But with Rand’s deep-seated contempt for women, I doubt we’ll ever find out.


    December 11, 2010 at 5:55 pm

  6. I appreciate your reading of Atlas Shrugged. I could never get past the first chapter.
    But now I will look at Hank Rearden with a different eye.


    December 18, 2010 at 5:32 am

  7. Wow, I haven’t read the book, but now I really want to. Nice. I could feel the contrast between the soft world and the hard steel, between the tender human heart and the cold aristocracy.


    December 31, 2010 at 5:45 am

  8. Something I notice here, and something I notice in the news on the various right-wing talking heads, is the virulent strain of paranoia. Again, I did not read the book myself so anyone who did read it should feel free to correct me on this, but I get the impression that many of the left-wing strawman aren’t merely written as dumb and naive with their silly responsablity for society instead of just making as much money as possible. They are actively hatefull of any commercial accomplishment. Lillian too isn’t just a golddigger, a woman who married Hank just to mooch of his profits and perhaps willing to let his company suffer for it if it means more money for her. Based on the posts and comments so far, I get the impression that she actively wants to destroy Hank and his company, just for the fun of it.

    I find this interesting, since this image of the leftish enemies seems to be finding its way into the real world. It’s an image that seems to be shared by members of the Tea Party or, closer to my home, the Dutch PVV (not quite the same as the TP, but it’s close). They say eviromental concerns over the greenhouse effect are not merely due to mistakes of scientists. No, those scientists know it to be false, and they are trying to push all those horrible policies that would prevent them to buy groceries down the street in their SUV knowing full well that they are destroying the economy for no good reason. They WANT to destroy it. Or, if the pundit is feeling generous, they want those research funds (because climate researchers would have nothing to do if they weren’t researching the greenhouse effect) and feel destroying the economy is an acceptable price to pay. Similarly, those Dutch politicians that don’t feel muslims are the scum of the earth aren’t just wishy-washy liberals that don’t realize that by not treating those people like dirt they are only going to cause problems down the line. No, they actively want a huge poor muslim population to take over the country, because it means more potential voters for the left-wing parties.

    It seems they are so sure their opinions and plans, and the catastrophic results that will surely happen if no makes those plans happen, are correct that they can’t imagine any of their opponents sincerely don’t agree with their ideas or future-visions. They find it easier to imagine that those opponents know the truth just as clearly as they do, but they’re all such horrible people that they prefer to cause all those certain disasters, or at least are willing to accept them for some laughably small short term gain. That second step though takes more than a huge degree of self-importance and certainity of your believes. It also requires a highly warped image of your fellow man. And (although I’m aware of the potential hypocrisy here) I think some of them meet both those conditions.


    January 12, 2011 at 1:05 pm

  9. I just ran across your blog a few days ago. I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged yet but I did manage to choke my way through The Fountainhead last year. I’m not sure I want to take on Rand again just yet.

    The problem as I see it isn’t so much that Rand is a bad writer or even the underlying philosophy (whether you agree with it or not). It’s that she lets the philosophy get in the way of the story too often. Robert Heinlein in much of his work expressed many of the same ideas as Ayn Rand, but he at least could write interesting characters and stories with depth and excitement–and while his portrayal of women seems sexist today, for a writer in the overwhelmingly male-dominated science fiction market of the 1940’s and 1950’s he was downright progressive. But then again that’s the difference between a mediocore writer and a great writer.

    Rand, on the other hand, seems incapable of creating a sympathetic female character: even the Madonna side of the Madonna/bitch complex you speak of seems far too passive-aggressive to be engaging to the reader. Perhaps in her writing we see Rand’s loathing of herself as not quite matching up to this ideal she’s created? Viewed from that perspective, the story becomes probably more insightful than she ever intended.


    March 31, 2011 at 8:46 pm

  10. Hmm, did you see Literata’s posts on Objectivists and fear? I think you apply the phenomenon that she describes to Rand’s own writing.

    Inquisitive Raven

    April 2, 2011 at 6:32 pm

  11. “can apply” Argh, preview or comment editing would be nice to have here.

    Inquisitive Raven

    April 2, 2011 at 6:33 pm

  12. So, this was the only page I have read…

    I would like to start by saying I did enjoy reading much of this commentary despite disagreeing with you on most of your points.

    “Let me shock all the libertarians reading this. I like the free market. Hell, I love the free market. When regulated and controlled, capitalism is a good thing, a great thing”

    First and foremost, by “regulat[ing] and controll[ing]” the market you are destroying what makes it “free”. Controlled trade is the antithesis of free trade; to say you love controlled free trade is an oxymoron.

    “The power that allows steel mills to rise, cities to sprawl across the globe, is the power of progress”

    I would instead argue that these things are an achievement, and a testament to the power, of human action. Cities are built by men, not government decree.

    “In Rand’s world, creating and building are not pleasures, but desperate blows against a cruel and oppressive world. And her creations are twisted by this obsession. Hank Rearden cannot simply love to create. Love of his business must be his only love. He has to cut out everything else. All other beauty, all other loves, are not only subservient to his mills, they are obliterated.”

    Creating and building, for the characters in the novel, ARE what brings them joy and they are only acting in the defense of that love. They do not simply do it out of spite for a “cruel and oppressive world”. It is true they have little to no regard for what does not bring them joy, but do not force such on others; rather they struggle to remain free to do what brings them joy, what they love.

    “Read that thoroughly un-Randian passage. Here is Hank Rearden, steel magnate, thinking, in a vague and inconsequential fashion, that he’d like to make other people happy.”

    That is not the meaning I take away from the passage you referenced. Hank does not have some longing to “make other people happy” but for others to see that happiness does indeed exist and that the struggle to find it is not hopeless. The difference between Hank and these other people is that he has already discovered what brings him joy.

    “Awww! How sweet! Ten years of work, and the first thing he thinks to make with this metal he’s poured so much sweat into is something for his wife”

    This statement of yours makes it clear you understand the full meaning behind giving her a bracelet made from the metal. The bracelet represents his effort and struggle to succeed, but Lillian places no value in his works. She does not celebrate Hank for who he is so she is unable to understand its meaning.

    “He wants to make people happy, he wants to take care of his family. He wants in other words, other things. A life beyond mills and metal.”

    I assert that he does not want a life beyond his mills and his metal. They are what bring him happiness, what he’s spent years working to create; what he longs for is the freedom to pursue that, and a family that celebrates him for what he is.


    May 19, 2011 at 9:38 pm

  13. I’m enjoying your posts. Will there be more?



    May 24, 2011 at 3:24 pm

  14. Having seen the movie and knowing that Lillian doesn’t appreciate Hank at all, it’s still rather disconcerting to realize he, in his own way, is also a smug asshole about at least some things. I’m sure it’s probably in the book too.


    December 9, 2011 at 4:06 am

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