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Cherryl is probably the most major minor character in the novel. After all, an entire chapter is devoted to her, which is highly unusual (3.4 – Anti-Life). Though we get glimpses of her earlier, she's always overshadowed. She is even upstaged on her own wedding day (thanks a bunch, Francisco!). Cherryl's main chapter, set on the night of her death, is, in a nutshell, the life's journey of one of the victims of the looters and one of the consequences of Galt's strike. Cherryl is the doomed and misguided victim, the decent person who couldn't fight the looters or be saved by Galt's strike.
Of all the characters in the book, Cherryl gives us one of the clearest glimpses of the effects of poverty. When we meet Cherryl she is slaving away in a dime store (think CVS, Rite-Aid, or Walgreen's), dreaming of making a better life for herself. She mirrors characters like John Galt and Hank Rearden in that she escaped the slums of her childhood and is setting out to improve her life.
"Mr. Taggart" – she jerked her head in a shudder and looked straight at him – "we were stinking poor and not giving a damn about it. That's what I couldn't take – that they really didn't give a damn." (18.104.22.168)
Cherryl makes a critical mistake here, though. She mistakes James for a figure of "greatness," the kind she has been looking for in her quest to escape the slums. When she marries James she thinks she is moving on up in the world. She thinks the material contrast between the slums and the wealthy world of James Taggart also indicates a moral contrast. But what she eventually discovers is that, in terms of values, the slums of her childhood are frighteningly similar to the rich and powerful world of James and his looter friends. In many ways, Cherryl's character suggests, the looters are no different from common criminals and slum dwellers.
First though, we have to get Cherryl married off to James. We noted earlier that Cherryl is similar to Galt and Hank in that she escaped earlier poverty in an effort to improve her life. But Cherryl shows us the huge divide between the sexes in this book. Men like John were able to go to work and earn money to improve themselves. As a woman, with no money or education, Cherryl has very limited options. Her ticket to rising in the world came in the form of a fairy tale. As in a fairy tale, Cherryl has to wait around for someone to rescue her. After her engagement to James, she is called the "Cinderella girl" in the press. Here our Cinderella is blinded by her "prince," misreading the entire situation:
"I have no right to be afraid of anything. I'm too happy. You see, I always thought that there wasn't any sense in people saying that all you can do in life is suffer. I wasn't going to knuckle down like that and give up. I thought that things could happen which were very beautiful and very great. I didn't expect it to happen to me – not so much and so soon. But I'll try to live up to it." (22.214.171.124)
This passage is important because it reveals the crucial error in Cherryl's thinking: her low self-esteem. Cherryl sets off on a quest to make herself "worthy" of James, not realizing that she is already better than him. Cherryl passively notes that great "things could happen" to her. She doesn't see herself as having the potential or power to do great things. As we see in her marriage to James, Cherryl continually and unnecessarily accepts guilt and blame. But Cherryl gradually starts to alter her thinking, and the epiphanies she has help us learn some important truths about the looters and the consequences of their values. As she herself is being educated, Cherryl effectively educates us.
It is notable that all of Cherryl's major scenes occur at night: her initial meeting with James, her wedding reception, her suicide. Literally and symbolically, Cherryl is always struggling, trying to make sense of things, in the darkness. It's no mistake that in her introductory scene the words used to describe her are "puzzled" and "stupefied." But Cherryl doesn't want to remain in the dark; instead, she sets out on a quest for understanding:
If you don't know, the thing to do is not to get scared, but to learn. . . . (126.96.36.199)
Cherryl uses this mantra to combat her fears and the increasing doubts she has about James and the wealthy world of "greatness" that she thought she had entered. As Cherryl's understanding grows, so does her horror. In a climactic scene that acts as a catalyst in her suicide, Cherryl that James is a monster.
Then the headlight she had felt rushing upon her hit its goal – and she screamed in the bright explosion of the impact – she screamed in physical terror, backing away from him. (188.8.131.52)
Note the light imagery used in this scene. Cherryl has been in the dark, but now she can finally "see." But the fact that the light is violent – an explosion and the headlights of an oncoming vehicle – underscores how terrible and crushing Cherryl's realization is.
What is awful about Cherryl's illuminating journey is that she gains awareness only to become conscious of how powerless she is. She can't see a way out of her situation. In an important meeting with Dagny, where the two forge a bond, Cherryl seems like she's nearing the point of no return. Dagny tries to build up her confidence and give her hope, but it doesn't really work.
"Yes, I feel that there's no chance for me to exist, if they do...no chance, no room, no world I can cope with....I can't explain what it feels like, I can't catch hold of it – and that's part of the terror, that you can't catch hold of anything – it's as if the whole world were suddenly destroyed, not by an explosion – an explosion is something hard and solid – but destroyed by...by some horrible kind of softening." (184.108.40.206)
Like Eddie Willer (to whom James notably compared her in this chapter), Cherryl realizes things too late. Just before her suicide, she even wonders where all the "great" men have gone and feels that Dagny is a lonely hero doomed to fail. More than any other character, Cherryl demonstrates the costs of Galt's strike, which has inevitably left some people behind, as well as the consequences of the looters' world, which beat down and destroyed people like her.