I’m proud to say that I participated in the Ayn Rand Institute‘s Atlas Shruggedessay contest 2012, and placed second. The essay I entered is below:
Topic: Choose the scene in Atlas Shrugged that is most meaningful to you. Analyze that scene in terms of the wider themes in the book.
When we were in school, my friends fantasized that Albus Dumbledore would owl them their invitation to Hogwarts. I fantasized that John Galt would ask me to abandon this world to its own contradictions and invite me to Galt’s Gulch, alongside the greatest minds of our time.
That said, it’s still hard to pinpoint which scene in Atlas Shrugged is my favorite. The description of life in Galt’s Gulch? The way that Dagny will do anything to build her Line and save Colorado? Francisco d’Anconia’s youth with Dagny Taggart? These are all magnificent, and I feel nothing but pride for the woman who created these characters with such absolute disdain for the morality of apology and sacrifice, and of course for the characters themselves.
However, the question is not which scene is my favorite. The question is which one is most meaningful to me. Which I understand, intellectually and intuitively. Which I live.
And the answer to that is just depressing.
When I started writing this essay, I fully intended to write of the sparkling highs in Atlas Shrugged, the moments that have given my life direction and shown me how the world should be. When I first read this book, I fell in love. I fell in love with John Galt, Francisco d’Anconia, Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart, with Ellis Wyatt and Owen Kellogg. With Richard Halley’s Concerto of Deliverance. With the way children are raised in Galt’s Gulch (719). I was uplifted, inspired to rise above the slime to live my own life. Atlas Shrugged has given me plenty of these moments, and, a few years ago, those are exactly what I would have written about.
Since then, however, I have had to grow up. I do not accept malevolence “in bruised resignation as the law of existence” (720), yet I have seen the way that it is impossibleto completely ignore and avoid the moochers. It is impossible to live in this world and not be filled with helpless rage by the willful brainlessness of so very many people. It is impossible for me to hold ideals of the kind that Atlas Shrugged shows us, while living as a full part of the world. The promise of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead is not fulfilled by the life I live.
I would love to write about the absolute pride I feel when Hank Rearden says: “The public good be damned, I will have no part of it!” (445) I want to write about the absolute ecstasy I share with Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden as they careen through the American countryside on a train built of their dreams and minds (224-232), or the joy I take in Francisco d’Anconia’s impassioned defense of money and the philosophy of Capitalism (380-385).
These are the best parts of Atlas Shrugged. These moments of sheer, rapturous joy, which “is how men expect to feel about their life once or twice, as an exception… [but John Galt chooses] as the constant and normal” (1001), these are the soul of Atlas Shrugged. The “shiftless, the purposeless, the irresponsible, the irrational” (683) that comprise the rest of the world, are insignificant, beneath notice. They are there; to deny their existence would be to deny reality. But it is laughable to adapt one’s life to suit them.
Yet they form the part of Atlas Shrugged that is easiest to relate to. It is painfully easy to recognize a Wesley Mouch or a Mr. Thompson among present-day politicians. Among the prominent faces in my own country, and people I have met, I have recognized at various times an Ivy Starnes, a Bertram Scudder, a Balph Eubank, a Paul Larkin and a Mrs. Rearden.
That being the case, it may be understandable that the scene most meaningful to me is Cherryl Taggart’s suicide.
Cherryl Taggart is a woman of great potential. She has no specific skill. She is neither a miner nor an industrialist, neither a scientist nor an artist. She is employed in a small shop; she appears to be nothing special. Yet her attitude is inspiring. She is a hero-worshipper – unlike Dagny, who is a hero herself – but does not settle for being a fan-girl. She wants to become one of the heroes herself. She is eager, young, and completely in love with life. Cherryl Taggart is an optimist, an idealist. She wishes to live in a world in which she can live. She has escaped from her small-town roots and is finding her true beginnings in the big city.
She would give her life for one of the heroes, the producers, and when James Taggart enters her shop and eventually asks her to marry him, she imagines that her dreams have come true. Even though it slowly becomes clear that he does not adhere to the principles she does, Cherryl marries Taggart and lives with him for quite a while. The fact that Cherryl unconsciously chooses to wed and live with evil is the reason that she eventually has to make the conscious choice to commit suicide.
Cherryl’s suicide is personally significant to me because I associate most strongly with Eddie Willers and Cherryl Taggart (Brooks), and perhaps Hank Rearden in the early parts of the novel. I am not a producer on the scale of John Galt or Hank Rearden. The world would not tremble if I left it. I am only a quiet, contented liver of my own life within my own modest means, produced by my own effort for my own sake – much like Cherryl Taggart should have been.
Cherryl’s is a cautionary tale. The warning is never to let your faith in the world depend completely on any one person other than yourself. While it is true that we mortals need the heroes, in order to live a good life, this is quite different from committing all our faith in mankind and our reasons for living to the safekeeping of any person other than ourselves.
I find that it impossible to live a moral life as Ayn Rand describes it, when your highest ideal is anyone other than yourself. The love between Galt and Dagny, for instance, is at its core a recognition of identical ideals and values in each other. To treat anyone else as the epitome of your values and your ideal of self, is to be self-effacing and ultimately, therefore, selfless.
In spite of this bad judgment, Cherryl Taggart’s potential would have been rewarded, in a sane world, by her long, happy and productive life. But the world is not sane. “Not your kind of world!” she cries as she runs into the river “with full consciousness of acting in self-preservation” (831). And self-preservation it was. As Wikipedia puts it, “Upon realizing the nature of the moral code surrounding her, the apparent lack of escape for herself and the heroes she worships, and her unnamed desire to remove support from the machinations she abhors, Cherryl throws herself from a bridge to her death.”
If she had chosen to live on in that world, in any way, she would have begun to lose herself. A choice to live with James Taggart would have validated his life-choices, as it would have been an underscoring and acceptance of her previous decision to trust in him completely. To throw herself on Dagny’s charity would have been debilitating to her own free spirit. To return to the dime store with the knowledge of her failed marriage and the reasons for it, even assuming she could under the new Directives, would again be a failure to live on her own terms. While Cherryl’s choice to die is not made in complete consciousness, she recognizes that this is not her kind of world. She knows intuitively that she has no more moral ways to live in the world – and acts on that knowledge.
Though I do feel pity for a life cut short, I am proud of Cherryl Taggart, and would be honored to know her or even be her. She is not someone to hero-worship, but she is independent, honest, brave and innocently eager to face the world and win. She lives on her own terms, and she ultimately chooses to die on her own terms as well, in a kind of atonement for her previous bad judgment.
However, there’s an even stronger reason that I find Cherryl Taggart’s suicide so personally significant. Simply put, it’s this: there, but for the grace of Ayn Rand,go I.
Word Count: 1413
“List of Atlas Shrugged Characters.” Wikipedia – The Free Encyclopedia.
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged – 50th Anniversary Edition. New York, USA: Signet, 1996.
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