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The novel may be obsessed with the question "Who is John Galt?" but first we need to ask, who is Dagny Taggart? At first glance, Dagny may seem like the easiest character to figure out. She's the star of the whole shebang, and we get almost an excess of information about her – compared to other characters at least. But she's really one of the most mystifying and complicated people in the book. Dagny makes a lot of polarizing choices that can be hard to understand. And things are further complicated by the fact that we often experience the book's roller-coaster ride of events and emotions through her eyes. So let's break Dagny down into her various component parts and see what we come up with.
This is how Midas Mulligan introduces Dagny to the others when she arrives in Galt's "Atlantis" with a literal bang. Dagny certainly knows how to make a grand entrance, whether it's showing up at a party with a one-of-a-kind outfit or crashing her plane into the middle of someone's super secret town. Dagny seems to shock and surprise people without even trying.
Dagny is the Vice President of Operations of her family's railroad company, Taggart Transcontinental. What's so shocking about this? Well, in this novel, which often reflects the 1950s America in which it was written, women don't normally run railroads. Or even have jobs. Much less high-profile ones. And Dagny is definitely high-profile: she's brilliant, a powerhouse businesswoman, and is impressive enough to attract the attention of the "looters" and of Galt himself. But we often don't get a sense of how high-profile Dagny actually is. So why is that?
Dagny herself dismisses gender prejudice against her, and the novel itself doesn't make a huge deal out it. This is perhaps because the novel is filtered through characters like Dagny, following her point of view. If Dagny doesn't make a big deal out of something, then the novel doesn't either. But we do get bits about the type of prejudice Dagny faces in her working life, including her relationship with Hank. Both Hank and Lillian acknowledge that Dagny will have a worse time of it if the affair becomes public knowledge, thanks to social double standards governing sex. Dagny also faces gossip from the general public about her career.
"So that is your famous sister?" said Balph Eubank to James Taggart, looking at Dagny across the room.
"I was not aware that my sister was famous," said Taggart, a faint bite in his voice.
"But, my good man, she's an unusual phenomenon in the field of economics, so you must expect people to talk of her. Your sister is a symptom of the illness of our century...a woman who runs a railroad, instead of practicing the beautiful craft of the handloom and bearing children." (126.96.36.199-150)
Balph Eubank is clearly unlikeable, but this conversation interesting points. It's easy to be caught off guard about Dagny's "fame," much as her resentful brother James is. The novel overall de-emphasizes Dagny's fame and notoriety. The bulk of the scenes we get with Dagny are private ones. She's having a conversation with a very small group of people or with one person. She also works by herself a lot. In scenes where Dagny is taking charge or interacting with a larger group of people, we still get a sense of her isolation.
She walked away from the table, to the window, to stand aside and let them continue without her.
. . . She did not listen to the voices of the men behind her. She did not know for how long the broken snatches of their struggle kept rolling past her. (188.8.131.52-139)
Dagny doesn't think of herself as a celebrity, and the novel itself doesn't treat her as one. She is instead depicted as a lonely, struggling figure. Why might this be? Well, Dagny isn't really part of the "real" world, even though she remains there for most of the novel (more on that later). Dagny lives by a different code of values and has ties to the underground world led by John Galt. But she refuses to join that underground for a very long time. As a result she has ties to both worlds, but she doesn't fully belong to either one. She's in a state of limbo much of the time.
Dagny stood on a street corner, where the airport bus had left her, looking at the city in passive astonishment. The buildings seemed worn.... She stood watching them, disarmed by an enormous sense of unreality. (184.108.40.206)
This was how they had gone – she thought – Atlantis, the city that sank into the ocean, and all the other kingdoms that vanished leaving the same legend in all the languages of men, and the same longing. She felt...the sense of vision of her own world, which she would never reach. (220.127.116.11)
Dagny feels that the real world is "unreal" and that she is barred from the world she wishes to join. She is paradoxically both tied to Atlantis and the real world and disconnected from them. Her unclear status serves a very important function in the novel, though. Dagny provides us with a link to each of these worlds, and we experience the full scope of the novel and its various worlds through her isolation. So Dagny serves a crucial function in the narrative and for readers. But how is Dagny important as a character in the novel? Not surprisingly, Dagny plays a lot of different roles to a lot of different people, and she connects to many of the novel's major themes.
Dagny is definitely a fan of keeping her romances on the down-low. In fact, she has three clandestine love affairs over the course of the novel. Society disapproves of Dagny, condemning her for being an unfeeling workaholic, practically not even a woman at all, or a dirty mistress. She actually seems to take pride in both accusations, though. Since most people aren't thrilled to be classed as either a robot or a whore, this takes some explaining.
Dagny's character plays into one of the book's major themes: the values of Galt and his fellow strikers. These values are all totally opposed to the conventional values of real-world society. If society condemns Dagny for being a workaholic, unfeeling mistress, Galt and his pals praise her for it. In the value system that Dagny and Galt share, both hard work and sex are expressions of a person's joy for living, reflecting their morals and personal ideals. This entire novel seeks to challenge our conventional wisdom, forcing us to reconsider our values and ideas. Dagny herself plays an important role in that process, particularly in terms of commonly held views of sex. Her radio address, where she challenges her blackmailers head on by admitting openly to her affair with Hank, provides insight into her understanding of sex and love:
"I am proud that [Hank] has chosen me to give him pleasure and that it was he who had been my choice. It was not – as it is for most of you – an act of casual indulgence and mutual contempt. It was the ultimate form of our admiration for each other, with full knowledge of the values by which we made our choice. We are those who do not disconnect the values of their minds from the actions of their bodies." (18.104.22.168)
For Dagny, sex is a positive act connected with her value system. Interestingly, she points out here that she doesn't disconnect her mind from her body. Her physical actions reflect her values, and vice versa. Dagny links her love for three men (Francisco, Hank, and John) over the course of the novel with her passion for her work on the railroad. A passage set during the launch of the John Galt Line makes these connections apparent:
She heard the rising, accelerating sound of the wheels – and some theme of music, heard to the rhythm of the wheels, kept tugging at her mind, growing louder – it burst suddenly within the cab, but she knew that it was only in her mind: the Fifth Concerto by Richard Halley....She saw Rearden's face above her, she held his eyes and her head leaned back, so that her face lay still on the air under his face. (22.214.171.124)
At one point Eddie tells his mystery friend that Dagny loves two things in life: her railroad and Richard Halley's music (126.96.36.199). It's no mistake that the passage above unites the railroad, Richard Halley's music, and Henry Rearden's face in Dagny's thoughts. All three serve as expressions of her values and her love of life. And it is this optimism that leads us to two other key aspects of Dagny's character. First up: her connection to the theme of childhood.
Throughout the novel Dagny is repeatedly described as somewhat childlike in appearance, particularly when she's sleeping. We also get a lot of her childhood flashbacks, and she frequently wonders why the world isn't as she expected it to be as a child. So what's the big deal with childhood? Well, it turns out that Galt's values are closely tied to the experience of childhood. Children are optimistic, energetic, and confident, which are all traits central to the values of Galt and Dagny.
When she opened her eyes, she saw sunlight, green leaves and a man's face. She thought: I know what this is. This was the world as she had expected to see it at sixteen – and now she had reached it. (188.8.131.52)
Dagny often recalls the hopeful vision of the world she had as a teenager, symbolized by railroad tracks disappearing into the distance. She felt that she had to grow up into that world, and that she would find a world that reflected her hard work and values at the end of the line.
You – she thought – whoever you are, whom I have always loved and never found, you whom I expected to see at the end of the rails beyond the horizon [. . .] it is my love for you that kept me moving, my love and my hope to reach you and my wish to be worthy of you on the day when I would stand before you face to face. (184.108.40.206)
Dagny's purpose for living hinges on being "worthy." She wants to live up to her own highest values and to both create and find a world where those values are reflected. For Dagny, the ultimate expression of those values will be in the form of the man she loves. And yet, when Dagny finds that man – John Galt – she leaves him. This is probably the most perplexing decision in the whole book, especially since that decision, as well as Dagny's love for John, are both tied to the theme of childhood. We'll let Dagny take a crack at explaining herself here:
"I cannot bring myself to abandon to destruction all the greatness of the world, all that which was mine and yours, which was made by us and is still ours by right – because I cannot believe that men can refuse to see....So long as men desire to live, I cannot lose my battle." (220.127.116.11)
Dagny is a hardcore optimist. She's either the most heroically moral person in the book or the most naively optimistic. Her childlike optimism leads her both love Galt and leave him. It's a bit of a conundrum, but it actually helps unify Dagny as a character, even if her actions seem counterintuitive at times.
But Dagny isn't all childhood joy and sunshine and daisies. We can't dismiss her masochistic streak: she often seems to willingly accept and even enjoy pain. Dagny likes it when Francisco slaps her. In her mind that shows her he cares. She often has rather passionately violent sex with Hank. And she willingly accepts the pain of being away from Galt. Galt preaches that pain shouldn't be a part of life, and that self-sacrifice is wrong, but Dagny often seems to revel in exactly those things. Perhaps this is a way of making her a more believable character, with flaws. She definitely isn't perfect, but a lot of people in the book think she comes pretty darn close. Which brings us to Dagny's last major role:
Dagny is an ideal for most of the major male characters in the novel, embodying the book's overall value system. For Francisco, she's the symbol of his quest to reshape the world. For Hank, she's the wife he always wanted, as well as an inspirational teacher. For Eddie, she's a heroic, larger-than-life figure. For John Galt, she's the symbol of his ideals and his soulmate. Most of these characters at some point speak of how Dagny is their ideal and describe her as some sort of symbol. The tricky things with symbols, though – and especially with turning people into symbols – is that the reality doesn't always match up with the ideal.
Dagny's status as a symbolic ideal actually reveals more about the men in the novel than Dagny herself. What it does tell us is that Dagny lives by and embodies a certain code of values that others find inspirational. Complex as she is, Dagny is a still a heroic protagonist.