“They’re just so…cold”

Atlas Shrugged is my favorite novel.  I’m re-reading it now, and had the opportunity to talk about it very briefly with some of the members of my book club.  A couple of women mentioned that they thought the characters were very cold and they wished they could see more emotion from them.  At the time, I explained that these characters represent an ideal, and not flesh and blood people.  Ayn Rand writes in a Romantic style, so if you want Naturalism, her novels are not the place to look for it.  However, when I thought more about this later, I realized that there’s another aspect of the novel that I neglected to mention.  These characters aren’t unemotional.  They’re just not emotional about the things that most people are emotional about.  For instance, what other people think of you, whether or not you’ll find love, or how to go about pursuing your dreams.  I realized that this is what I love so much about these characters.  They know what they want and how to get it.  They have pride in themselves and don’t need the approval of others.  Romantic love feeds their souls like any other person, but finding a soulmate is not their primary purpose in life.

Dagny Taggert feels elation and joy at the grandeur of her coming out ball, but utter disappointment when none of the young men attending live up to it’s beauty.  She rages at her brother Jim when she realizes that he’s using her to save his own hide while also stabbing her in the back.  Hank Rearden knows exactly what to do at his factories, when he’s pursuing his goals of making one of the best metals in the world.  But in his home, surrounded by his sneering wife, his ungrateful mother, and his purposeless brother, he is tortured when he doesn’t even know how to speak to them and tethered by a sense of duty to take care of them.  When Hank and Dagny meet Ellis Wyatt after the success of the John Galt Line, they are all thrilled to be surrounded by true peers and individuals of strength for one fleeting moment.  All such beautiful and heartbreaking scenes.  How could you say these are cold people?

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2 Responses to “They’re just so…cold”

  1. Richard says:

    The answer is in the text itself- in the scene between Cheryl Taggart and Dagny:

    I was afraid to speak to you. I wanted to ask your forgiveness long ago . . . ever since I learned the truth, I went as far as the door of your office, but I stopped and stood there in the hall and didn’t have the courage to go in. . . . I didn’t intend to come here tonight. I went out only to . . . to think something over, and then, suddenly, I knew that I wanted to see you, that in the whole of the city this was the only place for me to go and the only thing still left for me to do.”

    “I’m glad you did.”

    “You know, Miss Tag—Dagny,” she said softly, in wonder, “you’re not as I expected you to be at all. . . . They, Jim and his friends, they said you were hard and cold and unfeeling.”

    “But it’s true, Cherryl. I am, in the sense they mean—only have they ever told you in just what sense they mean it?”

    “No. They never do. They only sneer at me when I ask them what they mean by anything . . . about anything. What did they mean about you?”

    “Whenever anyone accuses some person of being ‘unfeeling,’ he means that that person is just. He means that that person has no causeless emotions and will not grant him a feeling which he does not deserve. He means that ‘to feel’ is to go against reason, against moral values, against reality. He means . . . What’s the matter?” she asked, seeing the abnormal intensity of the girl’s face.

    “It’s . . . it’s something I’ve tried so hard to understand . . . for such a long time. . . .”

    “Well, observe that you never hear that accusation in defense of innocence, but always in defense of guilt. You never hear it said by a good person about those who fail to do him justice. But you always hear it said by a rotter about those who treat him as a rotter, those who don’t feel any sympathy for the evil he’s committed or for the pain he suffers as a consequence. Well, it’s true—that is what I do not feel. But those who feel it, feel nothing for any quality of human greatness, for any person or action that deserves admiration, approval, esteem. These are the things I feel. You’ll find that it’s one or the other. Those who grant sympathy to guilt, grant none to innocence. Ask yourself which, of the two, are the unfeeling persons. And then you’ll see what motive is the opposite of charity.”

    “What?” she whispered.

    “Justice, Cherryl.”

  2. faye says:

    Ah, yes! I remember that part now that you mention it. Which is why I’m re-reading the book :)

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