The next scene is an extended look at Dagny Taggart’s childhood and early days at Taggart Transcontinental, culminating in the decision by James Taggart (and the board) to focus on the San Sebastian Line to the San Sebastian mines at the expense of crucial money-making operations. Hints are dropped that the mines are not all that they appear. This post will focus on the childhood bit.
When she is nine, Dagny decides that she would run Taggart Transcontinental one day — and that the decision was actually the “final seal” on something she had known long previous (along with Eddie Willers). I can’t help but roll my eyes a little when reading this; it’s pretty hard for me to imagine this situation in reality. I can imagine a fascination with trains and such, but I just can’t take the idea of a steel-eyed nine-year-old seriously. That’s generally okay if we take these characters as mythic and symbolic, but it does leave a serious hole in Rand’s work as a model for real life. Real nuclear families are pretty much communist, at least to some extent, and that doesn’t fit well with the general laissez-faire capitalist-in-all-things model promoted by Rand.
Anyway, Dagny feels an “arrogant pleasure” at the way some track cuts through the woods. This hilights two other interesting points. First, as we’ve already seen, Rand delights in using traditionally negative adjectives as virtues — selfishness, arrogance, conceitedness. Second, she viewed the environment as a blank canvas on which to impose structure. I certainly don’t hold that against her; almost no one was really aware of environmental concerns at the time. I do think that environmental concerns are an excellent example of potential external costs incurred by business, which is a critical drawback of laissez-faire economics, but it isn’t the only one.
More examples of the first point: ‘ “You’re unbearably conceited,” was one of the two sentences she heard throughout her childhood, even though she never spoke of her own ability. The other sentence was: “You’re selfish.” She asked what was meant, but never received an answer. She looked at the adults, wondering how they could imagine that she would feel guilt from an undefined accusation.”
Dagny likes mathematics (the only subject she liked in school), the excitement of solving problems, the “insolent delight of taking up a challenge and disposing of it without effort, the eagerness to meet another, harder test.” She feels the same about the railroad. She starts work at age 16 as a night operator while attending a college of engineering. It occurs to her that “women did not run railroads and that people might object. To hell with that, she thought — and never worried about it again.”
In short, Dagny is a super-go-getter, with many admirable qualities. It’s implied that she accomplishes everything from personal grit and raw talent alone, in the face of opposition (or at least a lack of emotional support and encouragement, other than possibly from her father), and gets no significant aid from the fact that her father runs Taggart Transcontinental. I haven’t really personally investigated the histories of “self-made men” (or women), but I am willing to accept this as a reasonable approximation for a small part of humanity. I believe that the ability to change socio-economic classes is measurable, and I think that the more mobile people can be, the better.
I find myself wondering exactly how much of herself Rand put into Dagny.