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Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter III

The sky had the stagnant breath of a furnace and the streets of New York were like pipes running, not with air and light, but with melted dust. Dagny stood on a street corner, where the airport bus had left her, looking at the city in passive astonishment. The buildings seemed worn by weeks of summer heat, but the people seemed worn by centuries of anguish. She stood watching them, disarmed by an enormous sense of unreality.

It turns out that John Galt dropped Dagny off in Nebraska, outside a small rural town called Watsonville. There’s a train station in town, so she boards “a Taggart train for the nearest airfield” and picks up a newspaper:

She stared in astonishment at a paragraph in a syndicated column from New York, which stated over-emphatically that Mr. James Taggart wished it to be known that his sister had died in an airplane crash, any unpatriotic rumors to the contrary notwithstanding…

The wording of the paragraph suggested that her disappearance had been a prominent public issue, not yet dropped. There were other suggestions of it: a mention of Miss Taggart’s tragic death, in a story about the growing number of plane crashes — and, on the back page, an ad, offering a $100,000 reward to the person who would find the wreckage of her plane, signed by Henry Rearden.

Yet again, a Randian character forgets that there are other people in the world besides themselves. Even though Dagny was already told that everyone outside Galt’s Gulch thinks she’s dead, it still somehow comes as a surprise for her to read it in a newspaper (she “stared in astonishment”). It’s as if her thought process is, “Well, I know I’m alive, so why doesn’t everybody else?”

When she realizes that her return is going to be big news, she finds herself dreading the prospect. At the airfield, she tells a reporter who she is and that she’s alive and will be in New York later that day, then boards a plane before she can be asked any further questions.

Just as we saw earlier, this scene is another example of how the world magically rearranges itself to meet the needs of Rand’s protagonists. Later in this chapter, Eddie tells her that Taggart Transcontinental is now running “two local [trains] a day”, fewer in some places, and that thirty percent of all passenger trains in the country have ceased to operate, with more being cancelled all the time. Yet even starting from a small town in the middle of nowhere, she’s able to get a train when and where she needs it, one that takes her directly to where she wants to go. Nor does she have any trouble getting a direct flight to New York or catching a bus into the city from the airport. How can the world really be in such bad shape if travel is still so easy?

Walking into her apartment – which, again, has been left just as it is, not boarded up or sold or given away to someone else, despite her having been legally dead for a month – she calls Hank Rearden’s office. Hank’s secretary tells her that he’s in Colorado, where he’d been searching for her plane, so she puts a call through to him at his hotel:

She heard the clicking of switches, some buzzing, some breaks of silence and then a man’s clear, firm voice answering: “Hello?” It was Hank Rearden.

She stared at the receiver as at the muzzle of a gun, feeling trapped, unable to breathe.

“Hello?” he repeated.

“Hank, is that you?”

She heard a low sound, more a sigh than a gasp, and then the long, empty crackling of the wire.

“Hank!” There was no answer. “Hank!” she screamed in terror.

She thought she heard the effort of a breath — then she heard a whisper, which was not a question, but a statement saying everything: “Dagny.”

“Hank, I’m sorry — oh, darling, I’m sorry! …Didn’t you know that I was back and… and alive?”

“No… I didn’t know it.”

This has to be the least satisfying return from the dead in literature. Usually, this kind of thing is a dramatic, deeply emotional revelation. Ayn Rand ought to have milked it for all the pathos she could get. Instead, Dagny’s attitude is that having to tell people she’s alive is a tedious chore and she just wants to get it over with. She doesn’t even want to go to the trouble of doing it herself. Not only is Hank not the first person she contacts, but when she calls him, she doesn’t say “Hank, it’s me, I’m alive!” but “Didn’t you hear about it on the radio?”

This flat, unsatisfying depiction continues when Dagny returns to work. You’d think there’d be a scrum of reporters, microphones thrust in her face, flashbulbs popping everywhere, employees crowding around her to cheer her return. Instead, the office is quiet and sedate, and her entrance is as uneventful as if she’d only returned from a weekend. Naturally, she expects that she can just pick up her old job exactly where she left off:

“Dagny Taggart” was still the inscription on the frosted glass panel of the door to her office. The look on the faces of her staff, as she entered the anteroom, was the look of drowning persons at the sight of a lifeline. She saw Eddie Willers standing at his desk in his glass enclosure, with some man before him. Eddie made a move in her direction, but stopped; he looked imprisoned. She let her glance greet every face in turn, smiling at them gently as at doomed children, then walked toward Eddie’s desk.

In Dagny’s absence, Taggart Transcontinental has come under the control of the worst looter yet, a man named “Cuffy Meigs” (what, are the people who come up with names all disappearing, too?) whose title is “Director of Unification” and who has sole authority over when and where trains run anywhere in the country. As Eddie explains, he’s using the railroad as a private fiefdom, canceling trains willy-nilly and sending them randomly all over the country, to help his cronies who have “friends in Washington”.

In spite of this mismanagement and a growing number of crashes and wrecks, the railroad is making money. Eddie explains that it’s because of the government’s “Railroad Unification Plan”, in which the railroads can all use each other’s tracks without charge, but are then forced to pool their profits and redistribute them based on the mileage of track that each one owns. Since Taggart Transcontinental owns the most track, even though most of it carries no traffic, they’re staying alive by draining blood from all their smaller competitors. Eddie is more than usually sarcastic about this, proving again that he’s the best character in Atlas:

“As a matter of fact,” said [Jim] eagerly, “the plan has helped to harmonize the industry and to eliminate cutthroat competition.”

“It has eliminated thirty per cent of the trains run in the country,” said Eddie. “The only competition left is in the applications to the Board for permission to cancel trains. The railroad to survive will be the one that manages to run no trains at all.”

When the inevitable question of her whereabouts for the past month arises, this is what she says:

“Eddie,” she said, “will you make a note on this and send it to the press? My plane developed engine trouble while I was flying over the Rocky Mountains to the Taggart Tunnel. I lost my way, looking for an emergency landing, and crashed in an uninhabited mountain section of Wyoming. I was found by an old sheepherder and his wife, who took me to their cabin, deep in the wilderness, fifty miles away from the nearest settlement. I was badly injured and remained unconscious for most of two weeks. The old couple had no telephone, no radio, no means of communication or transportation… I had to remain with them until I recovered sufficient strength to walk. I walked the fifty miles to the foothills, then hitchhiked my way to a Taggart station in Nebraska.”

This is a deeply implausible cover story, and Dagny has to know that. If she was “badly injured” from a plane crash and had to recuperate on her own without medical attention, why doesn’t she have scars, or a limp, or any kind of lasting injury? Granted, Jim may overlook this since he’s so desperate to have her back, but there are rival cliques in the government who aren’t friendly to him. Wouldn’t they pry into this obvious falsehood? Wouldn’t anyone at all be suspicious about where she really was?

In a private moment, she tells Eddie that she was in a plane crash, that she wasn’t badly hurt, but that she can’t talk about where she was or why it took her so long to return. Eddie asks if Quentin Daniels has been taken away by “the destroyer”, which gives her a jolt, but she wearily agrees that he has.

To some degree, Dagny’s reluctance makes sense. She’s come back to make one last attempt to save Taggart Transcontinental, but her heart is still in Galt’s Gulch. She’s not overjoyed to be returning to the outside world, she just feels obligated. But that doesn’t explain why she’s so unenthusiastic about telling even her closest companions that she’s alive. Doesn’t she want to run into Hank’s arms, or, I don’t know, give Eddie a condescending pat on the head? Ayn Rand is capable of writing believable emotion when she wants to, which makes Dagny’s utter failure of empathy all the more inexplicable.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...