The Terrible Characters of Atlas Shrugged

Robert Nielsen - Atlas ShruggedThe greatest and most obvious flaw with the book is how terrible the characters are. They are all one dimensional cartoons that are either perfect in every way or horrible in every way. If a character agrees with Rand’s ideology, then they are smart, beautiful, strong, noble, and rich. If a character disagrees with her ideology, Rand makes them fat, ugly, stupid, lazy, and hysterical (most of the villains of the book speak in exclamation marks). Even when villains have sex, it is made clear that they are not attracted to each other and gain no pleasure from the action. Because if you’re not a fanatical libertarian, you are wrong in literally every way.

The descriptions of the heroes are so over the top absurd it’s almost funny. Hank recalls his first day working at the age of 14 in an iron mine and how he cursed himself for being tired and feeling pain, but kept going because “he decided that pain was not a valid reason for stopping.” He then ends up running a series of steel mills and then inventing an entirely new form of steel. I don’t know how Rand thought it was credible that the CEO of a major corporation could also spend years working in a lab on research or that those skills crossed over. As if that weren’t ridiculous enough, he causally invents an entirely new way of building bridges one evening as if that were the kind of thing that happens all the time.

Francisco has to be the most ridiculous/funny. As a child he instantly becomes an expert in everything he does. He sits in a boat and automatically knows how to drive it. When he was 12 he snuck off and got a job working on the railroads, which was nothing because the year before he ran away and worked on a cargo steamer for the summer. Also while he was 12 he single-handedly discovers differential equations. When he was 16 he went to college but also worked in a copper factory. By the time he was 20, he owned the factory. How? By speculating on the stock market, because it is so easy to see which stocks will go up and down. It is weird that none of the heroes have time in their lives when they were fun-loving children; in childhood they were merely miniature adults.

All of the heroes have this absurd element to them. They don’t stop to eat or rest a single time in the book and it is casually thrown in that they haven’t slept for two or three days as though that would have no effect on them. They have no hobbies or interested outside work. Even when they are bleeding they don’t feel any pain. In other words, they are soulless robots, machines good for working and nothing else.

Atlas Shrugged bears a strong resemblance to fascist propaganda in its treatment of heroes. There is a strong emphasis on the cult of personality, of worshipping men of action in contrast to the masses who are too stupid and cowardly to achieve greatness. Democracy destroys accountability whereas dictatorship is the only system where anyone is responsible. All of the best firms in the book are named after their owner and collapse without them.

Atlas Shrugged is less of a novel and more of an excuse for Rand to promote her ideology. The characters are prone to burst out in long-winded speeches at the drop of the hat. The climax of the book is a 60 page speech in which remarkably little is said. However, I noticed that Rand completely avoided debates. The moochers give speeches in isolation as do the heroes; at no point do their paths cross…

–Robert Nielsen
Atlas Shrugged Is A Ridiculous Book

15 thoughts on “The Terrible Characters of Atlas Shrugged

  1. What makes it all the more pathetic is that it should not be that hard to write a decent novel that leans libertarian. When you tell a story you get to emphasize and omit things in a way that fits your narrative. You could write a novel with more complex characters being screwed over by the State because while States do good they do bad and the libertarian novelist could largely highlight the bad.

  2. Right! H. Rider Haggard had libertarian-leaning novels, so did Heinlein. But both of them put more effort into their work than Rand. She was just slovenly. Take pride in your craft, whatever you do.

    Lord, if Archchancellor Cheaney had institituted this recent travel ban, there’d be helmeted thugs at every international airport with terrifying automatic rifles. Local chairman of the bar #303 has no goddamn clue what he’s doing, and never has, and so, does it poorly. What’s wrong with a little craftwork, people!

  3. It was half a century ago or so when I discovered Ayn Rand and _Atlas Shrugged_. I dug it. Still do. However, it wasn’t so much because of how she portrayed her heroes as it was because of how she portrayed the world. Although written many years earlier, it seemed to perfectly capture both the then-present and the then-future toward which the world seemed headed. In a way, I feel the same about _1984_, or Lewis’s _It Can’t Happen Here_, or Forster’s _The Machine Stops_.

    On the other hand, discussing Ayn Rand is not like discussing other authors, and discussing _Atlas Shrugged_ is different than discussing other dystopian novels. So it goes.

    • Dystopian books have their own appeal. And movies/TV shows (Mad Max, Walking Dead). I enjoy them, too, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s as simple as because imagining the worst makes the present seem less terrible? In the turbulent 1970s, people liked disaster films.

      One I’d put in the Rand category is “Left Behind.” It’s actually an amusing read for the first few chapters. God Raptures all the good people to heaven, leaving planes without pilots, trains without conductors, etc. All hell breaks loose. It’s entertainingly dire. Unfortunately it becomes something of a evangelical revenge fantasy, Jews and atheists getting butt-whupped. Rand kinda fell into the same trap. Revenge fantasies are really only pleasant when the bad guys are really bad, not when the bad guys are anyone who disagrees with you. “Die Hard” would be much less enjoyable if Bruce Willis was shooting up attendees at a Dukakis rally.

  4. “Also while he was 12 he single-handedly discovers differential equations. When he was 16 he went to college but also worked in a copper factory. By the time he was 20, he owned the factory. How? By speculating on the stock market, because it is so easy to see which stocks will go up and down. It is weird that none of the heroes have time in their lives when they were fun-loving children; in childhood they were merely miniature adults.”

    This reminds me of Ender’s Game, actually. Ender is a super-genius who never loses a single battle, and his equally smart siblings take over the world through anonymous blogging (maybe this seemed plausible in the 80’s, but it’s hilarious today). Intelligence is easily transferable and a smart person can crack any system. I don’t think Card is a Randian, but there may be some influence nonetheless.

    • There’s apparently quite a bit of overlap: http://www.ornery.org/essays/warwatch/2014-07-31-1.html

      If you don’t feel like reading it (it’s oddly fascinating in a “seriously?” kind of way), I’ll sum up. Card hates taxes and “political correctness.” He believes America is threatened by the world, and every Democratic president has deliberately made us weaker. He’s a fan of business and reads like a straight free marketeer. And believes climate change is a hoax. These all sound like things Rand would agree with.

      To his credit, he is very open minded on immigration. I don’t know what Rand’s stance on the issue was. She was an immigrant, but was definitely a hypocrite in some other areas, so if she was a hypocrite on immigration, it would not shock me.

      Speaking of hypocrites, Card’s favorite politicians are Scott Walker (Koch puppet), Mitt Romney (Bain), and Paul Ryan (grew up on public assistance, now wants it cut). Card hates all the big money in politics (he says). Again, all people Rand would have loved. I’m guessing Card is the sort of fellow who believes he’s an independent thinker, but it’s strange how closely his thoughts align with Rand’s.

        • Yeah, Card sounds pretty deranged. That’s not a deal breaker for a writer, though. Tolstoy was half nuts. It does seem like a lot of sci-fi authors lean libertarian. Not LeGuin, for sure!

      • I saw Ender’s Game as enjoyable junk food, but I thought the sequel, Speaker for the Dead, was pretty good. I didn’t really know about Card’s other stances, though, I just knew he had problems with gay people. It’s kind of weird how much nudity of young boys was in Ender’s Game, and scenes like Ender staring at Bean’s naked body in awe make me wonder how Card managed to accidentally write something so homoerotic.

  5. To me the “tell” on Rand (and “objectivism” as a political philosophy) is that all her heroes do all this designing and building and construction without a single laborer, artificer, engineer, superintendent, inspector, welder…or, well, pretty much anyone.

    Nobody installs the HVAC systems in Howard Roark’s skyscrapers.

    Nobody does track maintenance for Dagny’s railroad.

    Nobody monitors the Bessimer Converters in Rearden’s foundry.

    Nope. It’s all noble individual heroes all the way down. Which is, of course, the most ridiculous bullshit. Rand – who never did an actual day’s work in her life – wouldn’t have had the slightest idea one way or the other, but anybody who’s worked retail or on a road crew or the swing shift in a factory knows better.

    And her worship of “businessmen” is, likewise, an artifact of someone who never worked for a day in an actual “business”, where instead of cool, farsighted heroes making brilliant decisions she would have seen the corner offices populated by the usual gang of overpromoted idiots, slackers, asskissers, butt-coverers, and pointy-haired-bosses all fulminating in a stew of ambition, distraction, uglification, and derision.

    Objectivism appeals to people who are fundamentally selfish pricks but who are self-aware enough to realize that “selfish prick” is generally considered an unpleasant thing to be, so they need someone to tell them that they’re not REALLY selfish…just “objectivist”.

    • The video game Bioshock had a companion book that talked about what happens when you have ordinary workers left over after a construction project. Part of the reason that the video game occurs is because there is nothing in place for what happens when a group of people are suddenly left out of work without recourse only with sci-fi stuff added in.

      It is a closed system with no steam valve for these people who are broke, hungry, and miserable. So naturally they blow the place up because when you have nothing left to lose, you have nothing left to lose.

      Rand’s work didn’t even change after she had an actual business with the Objectivist movement and could see what the difference between her tripe and reality was. Maybe it was the affair with Nathanial Branden that kept her distracted.

      • The lady had an, um, interesting love life. I should read a full biography sometime. Fascinating character, if a complete kook.

        It’s weird how people respond to books. I had this super-conservative co-worker once, and to avoid fighting we’d talk about 19th-century novels. She was a big fan. Her favorite was Dickens! Who is the wordiest and most difficult to read of the bunch, and DEFINITELY not a conservative! People are odd, God bless ’em.

  6. Adam Lee’s blog Daylight Atheism has a long series on Atlas which is quite good. The comments community has a good time kicking it around as well. I hadn’t read Rand since high school, and had forgotten (not noticed the first time around) how bizarre it is. Especially the sex stuff.

    • Fountainhead has a scene where the protagonist convinces his dream girl to love him through rape. Just like in Gone With The Wind!

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