by Tara Overzat
“Years later she considered herself an authority on propaganda, based on her university experience,” wrote Jennifer Burns in her well-researched Ayn Rand biography “Goddess of the Market.” (p. 16) I have long told friends that The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged should be viewed as fables – not in that they are untrue, but that the author employed some exaggeration in order to further her discussion of the virtues she believed in. While there are people in the world akin to Dagny Taggart, Howard Roark, or John Galt, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone precisely like them, because, well, they are perfect. They are fit, attractive, superiorly intelligent, have found (or are primed to find) financial success, and stick by their moral codes faithfully until presented with rationale that makes them openly investigate and change their viewpoints.
Now, these are all traits Objectivists aspire to, and for good reason. However, who amongst us could evaluate ourselves and say that we consistently meet all those criteria? A friend of mine compared grad school’s impact on life to a stovetop. “Imagine each burner representing something,” he said, “health, social life, academic success, and work. Now, you can only keep three of those burners going at once until you graduate.” Many of us can relate this metaphor to our own lives’ demands. Rand’s characters tend to keep all the burners going at the same time precisely because they are not real people – they are exalted heroes in a text. Even so, these heroes have their flaws.
For instance, Rand’s heroines are very thin. When Dominique Francon goes to live in tenement housing in The Fountainhead, “the neighbors felt certain that she had T.B.” (p. 139) Being fit and slender is one thing – people mistaking you for having a devastating disease is quite another. Another common theme of Rand’s heroes is their parsimony with both word and expression. The strong silent type works well in her novels, but may not work as well in real life. Growing up in a Latino household, I was passionate and expressive. Today, I still find myself talking with my hands and greeting friends with big smiles. Does this run counter to my being a rational, intelligent being?
Then there is the treatment of women in these books. Much has been made – and rightfully so – for Roark’s apparent rape of Dominique Francon. But we rarely hear about Hank Rearden’s threat of domestic violence towards his wife Lillian. After Lillian has pieced together that Hank is having an affair with Dagny, they have an argument, wherein he tells her, “…you are not to speak of her to me. If you ever do it again, I will answer you as I would answer a hoodlum: I will beat you up.” (p. 490) Granted Hank never does beat up Lillian, and later in the book, he strikes Francisco and comes to regret this violent action. Rand may have had Rearden make this shocking statement in order to make his embrace of pacifism more meaningful later in the book. Still the suggestion of violence towards women in Rand’s work is best taken as literary device and not as part of some instruction manual for the treatment of women.
All of this makes sense though, when we put it into the framework of giving producers and those who admire producers role models worthy of aspiration. A role model is a superlative person by nature, and often one that is over-glorified. When we look up to a hero, we do not see their faults, only their gleaming virtues and accomplishments. As such, it appears that Rand sought to create pristine heroes in her literature and not precise blueprints for our personal lives.
Rand herself was but a human being. She had her flaws alongside her virtues and triumphs. This does not make her any less of an influential thinker. It only drives home the point that her heroes are mythical giants designed to inspire us, and that we as imperfect human beings can strive to improve ourselves.
Perhaps I am not a bad objectivist just because I am not rail-thin and I enjoy conveying an array of overt emotions on my face. Really, the most important facets of being an objectivist are living rationally, respecting individual rights, and not forcing others to accede to your wants and needs. Of course, Rand’s novels read a lot better with super-gorgeous, superlative characters. And of this she was well aware.
Burns, Jennifer. Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Signet, 1985. Print.
Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead. New York: Signet, 1993. Print.