Essay Contests » Winners From Previous Years » 2006 Atlas Shrugged Essay Contest » 2006 Atlas Shrugged Essay Contest

First Place

Ann Pedtke, Kenyon College

At his trial, Hank Rearden declares: “The public good be damned, I will have no part of it!” What does he mean? How does this issue relate to the rest of the novel and its meaning? Explain.

Hank Rearden, though he does not realize it, is being tried for his aid to the public good. His official indictment may be selling four thousand tons of his metal to Ken Dannager in defiance of the government’s recent directives, but it is not this act that puts him under the power of the courts. It is not his “profit motive,” which the crowd assumes to be “the self-evident brand of ultimate evil” (441). Instead, he is trapped by his morality. When he says, “The public good be damned, I will have no part of it!” his declaration is his true plea of innocence, his first effort to step away from the guilt that he has willingly accepted for so long.

Throughout his life, Hank Rearden has been conditioned to accept guilt. He feels guilt because he cannot bring himself to value Lillian or Philip or his mother on the pretext of duty when no real value exists. He feels guilt because he is not capable of granting love undeserved. “You’ve got to be kind, Henry,” his mother insists. “You wouldn’t want me to think that you’re selfish” (433). This condemnation of selfishness oozes like poison from the world around him, overflowing his every accomplishment. He is trapped by the false conscience instilled in him: all that is done for the illusionary “public good” is virtuous; all that is done for the individual good is evil.

Hank Rearden’s most selfish act is his relationship with Dagny. Although his most noble ideals draw him to Dagny, he can at first see their relationship only as society views it: an immoral act fueled by the animal selfishness that is lust. “I don’t love you,” he declares after their first night together at Ellis Wyatt’s house. “I’ve given in to a desire which I despise” (238). Although Rearden recognizes his actions as “wrong,” he also knows that he cannot give them up. Subconsciously, he realizes that he is pursuing something of great value, but still he despises himself for being too weak to resist the “ugly weakness of man’s lower nature” (106), as he has come to acknowledge it. He is caught in the doctrine that he must always feel guilty for his pleasures, that joy in itself is sin.

Only when Lillian discovers his affair and begins to use the knowledge to further degrade his sense of morality does Rearden start to glimpse the loophole of such a trap. As she scoffs at his righteousness on the night before his trial, he sees “the full extent of her failure in the immensity of his own indifference” (430). The shame she wields is dependent upon only one thing: his consent. He has simply to withdraw “the power of his own virtues” (430), and her entire scheme will crumble.

This is the essence of the evil that is destroying Rearden’s world. “Could one conceive of an infamy lower than to equate virtue with pain?” (430), he wonders yet it is this lowest infamy that he finally perceives in his family, this infamy that causes him to defy Philip and Lillian, and to ultimately decide how to address the court the following day.

The judges, too, are counting on his morality. They expect to use his own shame to convict him. But Rearden gives them something very different from what they have expected, denying their very terms. “Do you mean that you need my help to make this procedure legal?” Rearden shrewdly suggests (443). The judges have assumed that Rearden has tied himself to the “public good,” to the public’s terms and the public’s doctrine of morality. By severing that bond, by upholding his selfish actions as right and virtuous, he wins the case and the temporary cheers of the crowd.

Yet Rearden has not yet won his freedom. The judges have timorously shifted the blame to Hank Rearden, but they continue to deny Rearden’s real message. In a direct contradiction of his protestations, they announce that he broke their laws “For the good of the people” (446), and it is with this justification that they acquit him. Stunned at such an outcome, Rearden realizes that while the crowd may cheer him today, “tomorrow they [will] clamor for a new directive from Wesley Mouch. . . because they [will] be told to forget, as a sin, that which made them cheer Hank Rearden” (447). So long as men can accept joy only with shame, the world will continue to spiral toward its own destruction.

Rearden himself is not yet free from the influence of guilt. While he has seen the extent of Philip’s ingratitude, he does not throw his brother out; while he has recognized the terrible scheme Lillian practices, he does not divorce her. He continues to support them and to allow them to live as parasites just as he allows parasites such as Wesley Mouch and Orren Boyle to live off his own productivity. Rather than joining the other producers to wipe out the parasites, Rearden continues to accept his own pain. He relinquishes the formula for Rearden metal in an attempt to keep hidden the relationship with Dagny that should never have brought him shame. He watches impassively as the government seizes the remainder of his property, implicitly acknowledging their right to dictate his life. He witnesses the epitome of his family’s baseness when they grovel before him in fear that he will disappear like the other industrialists and leave them without a host to feed upon.

It is only with Tinky Holloway’s announcement of the Steel Unification Plan that full realization begins to creep into Rearden’s consciousness. The plan is obviously irrational, condemning Rearden to operate his mills at a loss while draining profit into the inefficacious hands of Orren Boyle. But Holloway justifies it with one simple conviction: “Mr. Rearden, I have complete faith in you!” (898). It is faith that Rearden has given the parasites through his continued struggle on their terms, through his acceptance of their guilt and their morality. “Oh, you’ll do something!” sputters James Taggart (902), and with those words he unlocks to Rearden “the answer uniting all the pieces, the questions and the unsolved wounds of his life” (903). It is Rearden himself who has allowed the parasites to survive in an irrational world, Rearden who has given them “a blank check on reality” (903). Though he has seen that there can be no true “public good” under the current system, he has continued to condone it.

Now, at last, he can see the truth of his own fruitless struggle. He recognizes that while he could not give up his world to destroy it, he can give it up to preserve it. Though his love for his mills remains, he can now see them as things “to be left, not as an act of treason, but as an act of loyalty to their actual meaning” (905). He has shed society’s artificial ideals of morality, and he is able to make his own selfish decisions without any guilt or shame. His loyalty to the public good is broken. He is finally free to proclaim, in all honesty, “I will have no part of it!”