The Freedom to Love: Symbolism of Sex in the Novel Atlas Shrugged
Dagny Taggart feels proud over her intimate escapade with Hank Rearden because she wholeheartedly believes these encounters make her intellectually equal to him. Dagny represents one of the most successful railroad lines in the country, Taggart Transcontinental. Despite all the personal obstacles that she has overcome, she has secured a positive reputation in society due to the efficiency and quality of her projects.
Hank is also known for being a hardworking, ethical businessman who has built an empire from the ground up. Her response to his success comes in the form of sexual attraction because they share the same strengths and weaknesses. As Hank realized later in the novel after a remarkable transformation of morals, Dagny was “[his] best mirror” (Atlas Shrugged 653). Although he might have been oblivious to the fact that she perfectly compliments him, she was not. She knew that by attracting a magnate like Hank, that she would obtain undeniable proof that she is as valuable as him. She, too, has built an empire with her arduous labor; therefore, she has also earned the right to boast her public acclamations and respect of the people.
Dagny feels it is her prerogative to enjoy the company of an intelligent man because all of her commercial accomplishments have led to “buying” a man worthy enough of her excellence that will cherish her. Having Hank in Dagny’s possession meant that she had validation of her worthiness, and this made her proud of herself. Although both of these characters share a similar background, they embrace two opposing concepts on how to enjoy life. Dagny perceives sex as an act of pure indulgence, while Hank perceives it as an act of depravity.
As stated by the essay, “Of Living Death,” there is a crucial difference between sex and romantic love. The former is merely a means to thank life for one’s own existence, while the latter is an “expression of one’s highest values” (“Of Living Death”). Dagny has always been capable of experiencing romantic love, as her successful career has granted her a generous amount of confidence. She desperately craves a man who loves her, but she has a hard time meeting a man who matches her passion in life and work.
She is uninterested in any ordinary partner who will satisfy a temporary need. Sex is too sentimental for her, which is why she refrains from promiscuity and waits until she meets a companion who shares the same ideals as her and who will enrich her life. This companion comes to her in the form of Hank, who does not share the same ideals as she does. He views sex as a burdensome duty that a husband must perform to please his wife. His hatred towards sex stems from the fact that his mind and body have never synced in unison during intercourse with his wife (“Of Living Death”).
His motions do not come from a place of awe for his partner, but are calculative and frigid. This is why Hank condemned Dagny for awakening in him an animalistic appetite for the pleasure (Atlas Shrugged 195). He believes he is depraved for lusting after someone who does not belong to him, someone beyond his ownership. The fact that he nonetheless manages to renounce his feelings to Dagny in her face, even after establishing an emotional connection with her during sex, shows society’s deep grasp on him as a human. He is willing to reject his own happiness just to uphold a false ownership of ethics. Despite possessing such differing morals, both of these theories arose from similar sources. The most critical motive why Hank and Dagny have such contrasting views on sex can be traced to the people they choose to pay attention to. Dagny is led by her heart and wisdom. She has had experience with love since adolescence, when she fell in love with Francisco d’Anconia.
Her early encounter with love has led Dagny to refine her ideas of love and sex through self-reflection. She has never comprehended why pleasure is demonized in her society, and sincerely wishes to refrain from those who think likewise. In contrast, Hank chooses to listen to society’s values, even though the latter is the reason for the chaotic condition of life in the novel. Balph Eubank and Dr. Pritchett, influential philosophers in their community, rejoice in suffering and their perceived nihilism of life, ideals that have dictated a considerable part of his life (Atlas Shrugged 101-102).
For example, he enables his manipulative family and wife to destroy every shred of pride he holds. He also chooses to stay with a woman who ruthlessly seeks his downfall and receives pleasure from making him miserable. He experiences no love towards Lilian because they do not hold the same morals; she embraces laziness and lives life passively. However, he chooses to stay with her because he “belongs” to her. She is his safe territory, as she has already been explored by him. Hank became the quintessential example of a man who threw away his life to become a slave to a flawed institution that has fought fervently against independent thinking (“Of Living Death”). The symbolism of sex in this novel contains a deeper meaning that enriches the vital message.
The connection between the use of sex in Atlas Shrugged and the core theme of the novel is that self-interest must prevail in all societies to maintain morality. When the Twentieth Century Motor Company decided to set up a code in which wages were directly correlated with their employee’s skills, the latter did not become better workers. In fact, the company’s ruling generated corruption among their workers. Their deficiency of money obligated them to abandon their humanity in the hunt of money.
Comparably, when Hank was deprived of his emotional needs, he was prompted to abandon the values that he had strictly adhered to in search of a companion whose values equaled his. Contrary to what the public in the novel might have believed, these tendencies were not self-destructive in nature, but rather self-fulfilling. These acts of egotism surged out of a necessity to thrive in an unnatural environment for humans. Had the company scrapped their radical code, their workers would have maintained a robust sense of competition among one another, and corruption would not have conquered the company.
Likewise, if Hank had never liberated himself from his archaic morals, then he would have never experienced the selfish joy of both gratifying romance and sex. When a public authority imposes a rigorous limitation of a desired good upon its citizens, whether it is money or sex, their response is not to obey said ruling; instead, their instinct is to use whatever means necessary to satisfy their deprived needs.
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