Atlas Shrugged Part 1, Pages 12-18: Enter Mary Sue Rosenbaum

In 1973 Paula Smith, the editor of a Star Trek Fanzine, wrote a story called "A Trekkie's Tale" as a satire of the kind of strange wish fulfilling fan fiction that she received from people writing themselves in to the crew of the Starship Enterprise. The story featured a character named "Mary Sue" who was a fifteen and a half year old wunderkind who in the course of a few brief paragraphs earns Captain Kirk's love, Mr. Spock's respect, is revealed to be half vulcan, and then runs the whole ship while the main characters from the TV show are languishing with a sickness. In the end she dies of the sickness herself, mourned by the entire crew, and is given her own "national holiday" aboard the enterprise. The story spawned the term "Mary Sue" as a pejorative term for an authorial surrogate whose primary purpose is to live out the fantasies of the author in a fictional world. This criticism has worked its way into the sort of collective unconscious of amateur writing, and admonitions to avoid writing Mary Sue characters is well known in the fan fiction world.

The criticism is possibly a bit overblown. There is nothing wrong with author surrogate characters in and of themselves, and some of the best works of literature—ranging in style from The Divine Comedy to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to On The Road—have featured protagonists the authors were up front in admitting were their own fictional stand ins. That having been said, there is little that is less interesting in a work of fiction than a character of heroic bearing with no real flaws steadily beating back any and all opposition with their superhuman powers or intellect. The difference between authorial insertion done well and the Mary Sue archetype is that Mary Sue's aren't just there to give the author a way to comment on events or engage in fictionalized memoir, but rather to function as icons of wish fulfillment projecting all the authors hopes and desires into the world they are writing and getting everything that the author wants in his or her life. That's problematic because it's fucking dull to spend time reading somebody else's wishlist. If you don't believe me, go hit and browse the wishlists of some strangers. The only interest that you'll find is limited to those few places where you really want the same things that person really wants. There's no room for drama, excitement, humor or tragedy in the form, and fiction needs almost all of those things in some combination to be of any value. Ayn Rand seems to have been vaguely aware of this as she was writing Atlas Shrugged and so when she inserted herself into the book in the form of Dagny Taggart she was careful to make her less than perfect. Unfortunately, her only real imperfection, as it is noted in Rand's journals, is an overconfidence in her own ability to do everything on her own. Other than that flaw—and it's arguable whether it really even counts as a flaw—everything about her is pure Mary Sue.

The problem with the Mary Sue character, where the criticism gets its teeth, is that Mary Sue's usually are quite difficult to swallow. They are usually smarter than everybody else, better people than everybody else, and more capable than everybody else; in comparison to Mary Sue, almost everyone—both readers and other characters—will fall short of her in some way, and as such there are two potential problems created in a plot by her presence in it. The first problem is that given Mary Sue's superhuman capabilities, it's difficult to take any challenges she faces seriously. One reason there are so few stories told about omnipotent beings capable of anything and everything is that such beings are never challenged. They never have to do anything or overcome anything or face the possibility of failure in any way. They are simply too capable to ever fail at anything. The second, related, problem for Mary Sues in fiction is that it is often difficult to suspend disbelief in the face of the obstacles put in the character's path. Given what the reader knows about Mary Sue and her amazing intelligence and competence, it is often possible for the reader to see ways out of Mary Sue's predicament that Mary Sue herself doesn't see. The obviousness of what she should do differently is so apparent that it is frustrating for the reader that she doesn't do what she so clearly ought to do to resole the problems she's facing. Authors usually address this problem by inventing a difficult to believe set of circumstances concocted specifically to prevent the character from being able to do the obvious. This, predictably, is even more difficult to buy than the initial problems of the Mary Sue character in the first place, and the end result is a boring piece of fiction full of irritating characters acting in completely unbelievable ways contrary to the ways (characters who the author has taken pains to inform us are) smart capable people would ever act. This, my friends, is really bad writing.

Which, speaking of, brings me back to Atlas Shrugged. When last we left off, we had just concluded an opening scene that set up the central conflict of the book, which is the downward turn that Taggart Transcontinental was taking due to increased competition and difficulty in getting orders met to repair a struggling line. At the scene break we find ourselves aboard the Taggart Comet and a stretch of Rand's incompetent prose in an extended description of Dagny Taggart's physical appearance.

To set the stage, Rand describes the interior of the train briefly. She notes that Dagny is sitting next to the window of the train, and then gives us The Worst Sentence in the Book So Far: "The window frame trembled with the speed of the motion, the pane hung over empty darkness, and dots of light slashed across the glass as luminous streaks, once in a while." [sic]

Why is this bad? Well let's take it apart. First there is the clumsy subject, the window frame is trembling. Ok, fine, but why is it the frame and not the window? And doesn't she mean it's trembling because the train is moving at a high speed? To say that it is trembling "with the speed of the motion" is not very clear; it seems to imply that it is happening along side it but is not caused by it. And then what is "the speed of the motion?" there is a possessive noun missing in there somewhere. This first bit of trash is then compounded as she moves to describe the glass, which is "hung over empty darkness." Note it isn't in front of empty darkness, or looking out over empty darkness, but it is hung over empty darkness. Clearly there is a hole in the side of the train directly under the window. I know what she means is that it's dark outside the train and she is attempting to be poetical; the problem here is the attempt fails, as it does in the next clause "and dots of light slashed across the glass as luminous streaks" which demands the question be asked which are they, dots or streaks? Maybe dots of light streaked by or luminous streaks from lights in the distance? But dots slashed as luminous streaks? That's just bad writing. As is concluding all that mess with a comma and tagging on "once in a while" which is just straight up incorrect use of punctuation. Stay tuned for the next Worst Sentence in the Book So Far, coming in another 40 pages or so if memory serves.

So finally we come to Dagny "Mary Sue" Taggart herself: a mannish, severe woman with nice legs in a rumpled camel hair coat. Rand of course takes a dozen sentences to sum all that up, but the details are unimportant except to note that they are a fair description of Rand herself. Dagny is returning from a business trip and is worn out. When we meet her, she is in the middle of a rapture about a piece of music she is listening to, at first described as a symphony but which we will later discover is actually a concerto, although we aren't told for what instrument. What follows is an exposition on the music that is significant in that it is the first time in the book that there is a clear statement of Rand's aesthetic values. There is an irony however in that while it is clear that Rand/Dagny considers herself to be a connoisseur, by her comments here and later she reveals herself to be a bit of a musical philistine.

The word philistine is here used with unusual appropriateness. The derogatory meaning in English originates with the critic Matthew Arnold in the nineteenth century who used the term, borrowed from a poem of Goethe's, to describe people lacking in aesthetic refinement who saw no value beyond the monetary. In his hands it was primarily a condemnation of the middle class and nouveau riche and as such has classist implications that are delightfully ironic when turned on the likes of Dagny/Rand. What she likes about this particular piece of music is that it is a "clear complex melody—at a time when no one wrote melody any longer." In this she echoes the complaints of many people who make thoughtless idiotic comments about modern music, ranging from critics of atonal composition to the uninformed masses of yahoos who have said similar things about everything from be-bop to rock and roll to hip hop. There will be more nonsense about music to come later so I'll save a more in depth analysis of just how stupid Dagny/Rand is on the subject for now, but it is important to note here that the music Dagny/Rand has been listening to and describing is in fact just a whistled theme overheard coming from the train's brakeman and is an introduction of one of the novels heroes, the fictional composer Richard Halley. Halley is Dagny/Rand's favorite composer and Dagny/Rand claims to know "every note he has ever written" which leaves her shocked to discover that although the piece the brakeman is whistling is definitely Halley, she has never heard it before. When she questions the brakeman about it, he says that it is indeed Halley, it's his fifth concerto (not symphony). Dagny/Rand then tells the brakeman that that can't be because Halley only wrote four concerti. The brakeman then recants and says it's just something he heard somewhere, leaving us with a mystery. It also leaves us baffled about what sort of music it could possibly have been and I take this to suggest that Rand doesn't know that concertos are written as solo pieces for a specific instrument to be accompanied by an orchestra, and as such there is no such thing as a "Fifth Concerto." There might in fact be a "Fifth Piano Concerto" or a "Fifth Clarinet Concerto" or a "Fifth Violin Concerto" but not just a fifth concerto, because concerti are not the same things as symphonies as any connoisseur of classical music (or well informed music school grad like yr humble author) would be well aware. Since Dagny/Rand clearly is not aware, this is evidence that she is in fact someone who listens to classical music not because she is an afficionado but rather because it is a signifier of cultural refinemet. There is a word for such people, and that word is poseur. Evidence that Rand is a philistine at present: 1-nil for philistinism. We can now move on to see what other characteristics Rand wants us to believe she and Dagny possess.

To begin with Dagny/Rand is apparently a workhorse. She has gone without sleep for days, and although she on an hours long train ride, she can't "permit herself to sleep." The reason she can't is because of a litany of problems that she has to think about. Rand doesn't bother to tell us what these problems are, but as best the reader can fathom they have to do with the problems Eddie Willers was trying to point out in the previous section. Dagny/Rand also admires efficiency as we discern from the admiring look she gives the brakeman who is working with "expert efficiency." Well great. I appreciate efficiency too. It's always a good sign of competence, and where things are inefficient that means that there are problems to solve.

So yes, Dagny/Rand will not sleep. Until she does, falling asleep listening to the clicking of the train wheels "in accented rhythm"—note the missing article. When she awakes, it is unsurprisingly with the cliché "jolt, knowing that something was wrong." Rand seems to imply that this something that is wrong is what it is that wakes her up. The something is that the sound of the wheels had stopped. Well, the wheels stopped, but we infer that it is the sound that is missing. Except that can't be what woke her up because we soon find out that the train has been stopped for an hour. So really what has happened is that the train stopped and Dagny/Rand kept on sleeping until sixty minutes later she was jolted awake by the stopping of the wheels. That, my friends, is just bad writing. Rand is deploying the cliché about awaking with a start because something is wrong in order to artificially build drama into the mundane event of a train stopping for a red light.

That's right, that's the big dramatic issue that awoke Dagny/Rand "with a jolt:" a train has stopped at a red light.

Let that one sink in.

Dagny/Rand, of course, being the chief of operations for the rail line, leaps into action. She immediately hunts down the engineer outside who is standing around with some passengers and other people not talking "with placid indifference," as opposed to agitated indifference I suppose. Their "placid indifference" is a sign of course that they are ineffective losers who simply wait around for the real movers of society like Dagny/Rand to tell them what to do. Never mind the gross unreality of the situation. I personally can't imagine a train being stopped for an hour on the tracks, particularly a train called the Comet with a reputation for never being late, without a half dozen passengers haranguing the engineer and generally making themselves a pain in the ass until the train gets running again, at which point they will continue to be pissed off and complain to anyone who will listen. Still, lets give these folks the benefit of the doubt. Maybe there is some reason to be calm. Maybe there's a rock slide or something that can't be cleared and folks are waiting to hear at a signal box with a phone that they can get moving again.

No such luck.

As it turns out, the conductor thinks the signal is just broken. Either that or the dispatcher is asleep at the wheel, but no matter which the obvious solution to the problem, which we don't really know what it is, is that the signal needs to be ignored and which, apparently, nobody by Dagny/Rand realizes. Of course, the real problem is not that everyone is an irresponsible idiot, but rather that no one knows why the train has been ordered to stop. This problem is plainly ignored. Which brings us up against one of the primary flaws of Atlas Shrugged as a science fiction novel: it's a science fiction novel full of miracle materials and hyperefficient engines, but absolutely no improvement made in communications technology past something apparently fixed in the mid nineteen forties. Which is to say that the communications technology in the book was already out of date by the time the book was written. Now, I've been delving into how railway signalling and dispatching works in my research into stuff in and around Atlas Shrugged, and it is apparent to me, given my cursory reading, that it's an incredibly complex subject full of safety regulations and operating procedures that vary from railroad company to railroad company. It has also been one of the primary areas of innovation among railways over the years and as such is a rich location for some scientific speculation. If I were ever to sit down and write a scifi novel about a character who runs a railroad, signalling would be something I'd feel i needed to get a really firm grasp of and think hard about before I ever put pen to paper. Here, Rand and I differ, because she apparently hasn't done her homework at all.

I make this claim because Dagny/Rand, the chief of operations for the railroad, and therefore the person responsible for writing the rule book about what to do in this circumstance, doesn't know what the conductor takes to be common knowledge among railroad operators, which is that signalling is breaking down left and right. In other words, she's garbage as a VP of Ops. So much for Dagny/Rand's supposed competence and "mover" status. Second, Dagny/Rand doesn't know what an engineer is supposed to do in such a circumstance, and has to be told by the engineer that it's a red light and he isn't going to run it. Which, well, duh. That to me seems like a sensible action. This is a train after all, not a car. While the action that Dagny/Rand orders (as though it hasn't even occurred to the mass of incompetent boobs she is surrounded with) to proceed with caution to the next signal and if it's green keep going makes a lot of sense if translated to someone being stopped at a red light on the street for an extended period of time with no oncoming traffic, when you're talking about hundreds of thousands of tons of steel that will take literally miles to come to a complete stop, a little bit of extra caution is possibly warranted. I don't really know. I'm not a train engineer. But then neither is Rand and she doesn't seem to have realized the need to ask this question. Which, of course, is yet another sign that she's an incompetent hack. Moreover, why the hell doesn't this engineer living the future have a radio connection to at least the next station where he can find out what's going on with the signal or some other way to get in touch with a conductor rather than sitting at a broken signal for what might have amounted to days if Dagny/Rand hadn't have intervened? And why does Dagny/Rand not realize that this is a failure of her leadership to address clear problems with her railroads operations of which she is supposedly the wizard in charge, the man behind the curtain, the power behind the throne, etc etc? To put it bluntly, the situation is mindnumbingly contrived and Dagny/Rand's reaction to it is insanely stupid. So much for the "realism" of Objectivist aesthetics.

After the train gets moving again, Dagny/Rand reflects that this is symptomatic of the wider world, that things are like this all over the country. Apparently things are falling apart. And, not to beat you over the head with it, but things are falling apart. Also, things are falling apart. Stuff is so bad that even the chief of operations of the largest railroad in America is unable to run her own railroad because, um, stuff is so bad. Rand, possibly sensing that this doesn't make a damn bit of sense, gives Dagny/Rand an out by pointing out that the problem here isn't Dagny/Rand's incompetence, but in fact it is the incompetence of one of her subordinates who she knows is incompetent but hasn't replaced because she can't find someone better to give the job to. Which, yet again, is a sign that Rand never worked in industry and doesn't have a clue how business works. A reasonably competent VP of a major company should have no trouble finding a reasonably talented person to put into middle management to replace a buffoon who fucks up as bad as her Ohio chief (meaning her, because it's really her fault for not planning better) has fucked up. It's just a matter of being willing to pay what a talented person costs. Of course, Dagny/Rand doesn't yet realize that all of the talented people in the country are moving to a valley in Colorado because they feel so put upon by the poor and the lazy, but that's nothing we're going to know anything about for a few hundred pages. What matters here is to note that Dagny/Rand has shifted the blame for the fact that her railroad, the operations of which she is ultimately responsible for, to an underling. Which is one of the real problems of Rand's theory, that is, it doesn't take into account one of the primary flaws of human nature, which is that there is a huge segment of the population that is utterly incapable of admitting when they fucked up. Dagny/Rand and Rand herself are both clearly such people.

According to Rand's diaries, the lesson of Dagny/Rand is supposedly that a talented "mover" can't do everything on her own, but in fact needs other people to be able to realize her highest potential. Which is of course the collectivism that Rand hates so much and the reason that her version of selfishness as the heart of a sort of weird virtue ethics and her mistaken adherence to the myth of the rugged individual doing it for himself is completely untenable, but now I'm getting ahead of myself. There will be plenty of time later to highlight the incoherence of the "philosophy" at center stage in this piece of shit novel.

For now, I must be satisfied to put it down for another week and go back to the real world where Rand's belief in unregulated capitalism is showing what it leads to as civilization falls apart around our ears.


"There will be plenty of time

"There will be plenty of time later to highlight the incoherence of the "philosophy" at center stage in this piece of shit novel."

You're not fooling anybody, you know, into thinking this is actually literary criticism. You obviously have some political beef with Rand and are disguising it as a mere literary critique. If the novel were truly a "piece of shit", people like you wouldn't be spending endless words trying to discredit it 52 years after its publication.

Your technique above seems to be to deliberately misunderstand what you read- and then to create confusion where there is none. I am a classical musician. I read "Halley's Fifth Concerto" and assume piano concerto, particularly because Halley himself is a pianist as discovered later in the valley. To our knowledge, Halley possibly never wrote anything but piano concerti- a fact which Dagny would know, presumably, as she is a Halley fan. The brakeman (a student of Halley's) would also have this knowledge. I see no inconsistency in her saying "Halley's Fifth Concerto" without specifying the instrument- any more than if someone spoke to me of Rachmaninoff's Second- that it was a piano work is a given, as the piano concerti are the most well known. So what is your problem? Are you just stupid or are you just grasping at whatever straws you can use against Rand?

BTW- "the power behind the THROWN"? And you really think you should be listened to as an expert on the written word? Don't quit your day job.

I've made no secret of the

I've made no secret of the fact that I have a political beef with Rand. I have a political beef with Tolstoy too, but he writes well enough that taking him down isn't a task that needs to be taken on. This is literary criticism because Rand isn't just a buffoon with dumb ideas, but she's also a buffoon with dumb ideas who wrote a bunch of really bad books that have not faded from public consciousness because a bunch of buffoons like you are suffering under the delusion that they are not really bad books. I'm doing my best to correct that misunderstanding, by pointing out where it fails as literature as well as where it fails as philosophy. Don't worry though, where Rand is concerned there is plenty of fail to go around.

I'm not going to bother explaining again how the confusion is problematic because Rand doesn't know that a symphony and a concerto are different genres. You can read the article and see that that's why it's problematic and that she clearly isn't using a shorthand. Which, Mr classical musician is not the clear matter you make it out to be. Say Rachmaninoff's Second to anyone who knows classical music and they will most likely assume you are talking about his second symphony because generally it is only symphonies that are referred to by numbers alone. That's neither here nor there though because Rand obviously thinks that "concerto" is just another word for "symphony." Which, as far as the errors she makes go, is really a rather minor one. I just pointed it out because i think it's funny how she gets so many of the details wrong in her magnum opus. There are more to come of course.

And thanks for pointing out the spell checker error. It's now fixed.

I thought it was clear that I

I thought it was clear that I meant "If I said Rachmaninoff's Second Concerto" above (a la "Halley's Fourth Concerto"). I would have written the whole thing out if I did not assume that an intelligent reader could understand given the context, considering no one in Atlas Shrugged ever says "Halley's Fourth" but always "Halley's Fourth Concerto". I forgot who I was dealing with. None are so confused as those who wish to evade your meaning. Again, "Halley's Fourth Concerto" is fine provided that the characters are aware that either a) Halley wrote exclusively piano concertos or b) if Halley wrote, say, 1 Oboe Concerto and 2 Viola Concerti but 4 Piano Concerti (a case in which "Fourth Concerto" to a knowledgeable fan can have only one meaning) or c) Halley's Piano Concertos are his most famous works and the only one's to habitually spring to mind.

In your defense, Dagny describes the piece as a symphony of triumph- and describes it as a symphony through a couple of paragraphs- BEFORE she knows what she is listening to- before she has even realized that she is hearing a whistled theme and that the implied orchestration is only in her mind. She asks the brakeman:
"Tell me please, what are you whistling?"

"It's the Halley Concerto," he answered, smiling.

"Which one?"

"The Fifth."

She let a moment pass, before she said slowly and very carefully, "Richard Halley wrote only four concertos."

This alone should answer your question. Halley wrote FOUR Concerti in his career before his retirement- Dagny knows every note of his up to that point. He has apparently only written concerti for one instrument- so we must assume that Halley wrote 4 concerti for, say, piano. The brakeman says "THE Halley Concerto." Why? Because it is the first written in the valley, presumably his greatest, and the brakeman we will learn later was in the valley to hear its first performance. The exchange makes perfect sense and even has small clues to the history of the two characters and their differing contexts. IF you're not the sloppy reader you've revealed yourself to be.

Classy to blame your error on the spell checker; it's not that you're careless, it's the machine that failed, right? Truth is you're a careless writer and reader. I make my share of mistakes, certainly, but I do not set myself up as a critic of literature. I look forward to seeing what mistakes you make next.

oh no i'm not blaming the

oh no i'm not blaming the spell checker, it was a careless error, but it was careless use of spellcheck that looked at "thron" and made a suggestion that I accepted and i didn't pay close enough attention to what the suggestion was.

as to the rest, you made my case for me. yr ad hoc justifications for Rand's sloppiness are precisely the problem. Why say they're concerti at all? why switch from it being a symphony to a concerto? what compositional purpose does that serve? None. My argument is that Rand/Dagny doesn't know that a concerto isn't a symphony and the sloppiness of what she's doing is signified by that fact. That's the basic point that all of your dissembling is failing to address.

And, really, the clues aren't small at all, they're huge red flags that Something Is Going On. I've read the book, i know who the brakeman is. I know that Halley wrote the piece after setting up shop in Galt's Gulch. Nothing about that whole exchange is subtle or well done, which is typical, which is why I selected it as something to highlight the clumsiness of. All of this argument against what I said only makes sense if you're already committed to the view that the book is a masterwork and finely wrought with a close attention to detail that frankly the evidence does not bear out. Consider the other example of bad writing that you haven't even addressed and which is even less defensible, the worst sentence in the book so far with all that confused descriptive nonsense and awkward phrasing. Such a sentence would not appear in a book with the attention to detail yr argument credits Rand with. And there are many more examples to come.

Thanks for playing tho.


It suddenly becomes clear why Jolie would want to play Dagny.

The 80s were a strange time for me

I love your commentary on Atlas Shrugged!

When I read the book back in the eighties, I enjoyed it, but that was probably due to the fact that I didn't have many books available at the time. All the books I owned were in boxes at my parents' house, 700 miles away. I bought Atlas Shrugged for 25 cents at a thrift store.

The irony is, I had put myself in the near-homeless situation by my own choice and therefore didn't realize a lot of people were put there by Reaganomics. I didn't really put two & two together, at that moment, about the bogus trickle-down capitalist agenda all around me.

Like the first line of my story, Time Adjusters, "The eighties were a strange time for me."

"once in a while"

The "once in a while" is really the icing on the shit-cake that is that sentence...

Is Rand that foolish?

Halley is a pianist and a composer. Possibly a great violinist, trumpeter, etc. Rand would not have added piano because it was implied. If a composer wrote only piano concertos would you say piano concerto every time you wanted to mention the piano concerto. Wouldn't it be redundant to say piano concerto if you were referencing a concerto by Chopin? He only wrote concertos for piano.

Now I may seek to qualify my citation by adding additional information like 1st 2nd 3rd or 4th. or a mysterious 5th. But adding piano only helps someone understand what the concerto is spotlighting. Perhaps Rand thought we were capable of this induction.

it doesn't matter but

you're missing the point. the point is that rand/dagny doesn't know that a concerto isn't a symphony altho we're supposed to believe that she's enough of an afficionado to recognize the stylistic qualities of a whistled melody she's never heard before as having been written by a composer she likes and fill in the orchestration for herself in her brain. Which is ridiculous.

as for the specific criticism, most composers who have written concertos have written them for multiple instruments. there's nothing in the text that should lead the reader to assume that this is not true of Halley. but again it doesn't matter, because the problem isn't that they don't specify the instrument but that dagny doesn't know a concerto from a symphony.

This is a hoot!

Your analysis of Atlas Shrugged is a hoot. It made my day. I must confess that I have read that crappy book more than once, and actually enjoyed it -- well, at least the plot. But it finally dawned on me the complete implausibility her strawman characters. And truthfully, my realization was only partial -- nowhere near the depth of your analysis. My thanks to you. You have contributed greatly to my mirth.

Great Comments

What I adore about Rand's work is that she is disruptive. Atlas Shrugged is loved and hated and the resulting discussions are fascinating. Whether or not to advance a train on a red signal is a fascinating moral problem and the debate generated by this question is worth more, I believe, than agreeing wholeheartedly one way or the other.