Thursday, June 2, 2011

At last, she reads Atlas.

The first time Atlas Shrugged made an appearance in my life I was about fourteen and picked it up at a yard sale, all shiny and used, for a couple bucks. I took it home and felt a sort of exhilaration because I knew, I just knew I was about to tackle literary greatness. I sat on my bed, pulled open the creased cover, and read. About half-way down the page, I found my precious literary ego wounded by the sudden realization that I had no idea what was going on and even less of an idea of why this book was so great. 

After that rocky introduction, Atlas Shrugged remained a constant on my bookshelves, seldom encountered in my teenaged and young-adult years. In high school, I filled my free time with community theater and the quintessential dark, brooding poetry typical of a 16-year-old artistic type. Even in my 20s, it still seemed somewhat of an intimidating read, and I was too busy falling in love with Victorian literature and Shakespeare and writing papers for my undergrad. 

But, lo and behold, when I reconnected with my now-boyfriend, Mark, Atlas Shrugged turned out to be one of his favorites. The closer we became, and become, the more our conversations lead back to the ideas of and what Mark loves about Ayn Rand and her books. So, two chapters in, I’m beginning to realize that, although a book may be praised by critics and scholars, most of a novel’s greatness comes from what readers take away from the story and the experiences they have while interacting with it. 

Rand’s ability to maintain the intricacies of multiple characters’ external actions as well as their internal dialogue and weave those two things into a cohesive story is nothing short of remarkable. From Eddie Willers to the Taggarts and Hank Rearden, the reader is instantly privy to what makes them uniquely themselves, but are always left wondering just how these characters will interact in the coming pages. 

And it is perhaps this interaction that causes Hank to withdraw into his own thoughts and plans because he is aware of the disconnect between himself and his family who he had once “wanted to like” (38). 

Hank, cognizant of the distance between himself and his family, works in subtle ways, to deliberately maintain that separation. He describes their affection for him as “causeless” because they “[profess] to love him for some unknown reason and they [ignore] all things for which he could wish to be loved” (37).

Perhaps this is because, his mother and wife, Lillian, have not figured out how to love Hank for who he is. They, to paraphrase Mr. Hughes, see Hank as they want to see him, “[i]n the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.” In this way, his mother and Lillian are left only to love their idea of Hank, their ideal definition of a son and a husband. When Hank refuses to conform to those standards, he is left with little more than haphazard affection from his family who seem “wounded at the mere fact of his being” (37). 

But what wounds his mother and his wife is not merely that Hank is, but what Hank is not. His family threatens his individual existence by refusing to love him for the reasons he loves himself, his ideals and accomplishments. However, Hank refuses to succumb to the ideal “Henry” as he is called because he knows that person is less than himself. 

I think that speaks to the depth of Hank’s character. It makes me want to find out what Rand has in store for someone like him. She was able to develop his character so vividly that now I want to know what kind of person he’s going to be when his story is over compared to the other characters and their own stories. Who will be good? Who will be bad? Who is John Galt?