Critical Essays The Role of the Common Man in Atlas Shrugged: The Eddie Willers Story


The heroes of Atlas Shrugged are men and women of great intellect. Dagny, Rearden, Francisco, Ellis Wyatt, and, above all, Galt are superb thinkers — even geniuses. The story makes clear the multitude of ways in which the great minds are mankind's benefactors. But an honest reader may ask: What about the common man? Do heroism and moral stature require extraordinary intellectual ability, or can individuals of more modest intelligence aspire to these lofty goals? What is the relationship between a man's intelligence and his moral character? In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand gives her answer to these questions through the character of Eddie Willers.

Eddie lacks the genius possessed by his boss, Dagny Taggart. He is her diligent, able assistant, but he's not capable of building the John Galt Line, judging the merit of Rearden Metal, identifying the nature of the abandoned motor, finding a scientist capable of reconstructing the motor, or resolving the chaos that the Taggart Tunnel explosion causes. Likewise, he doesn't possess the ability to run Taggart Transcontinental. He even states, in his forthright manner, that he isn't a great man. He knows that if the railroad goes, he won't be able to rebuild it; if such a tragedy occurs, he'll share its demise.

But the issue of Eddie's character is of greater importance. He is as constant in his devotion to the railroad as Dagny. He works the same long hours willingly; he stands at her side through every crisis; he is equally shocked and outraged at the behavior of James Taggart and the looters. Eddie has known, from early childhood, that the railroad is his life. In response to James Taggart's snide reference to him becoming a feudal serf tied to Taggart Transcontinental, Eddie states, "That's what I am."

Like Dagny, Eddie reveres the achievements of Ellis Wyatt, Hank Rearden, and the unknown inventor of the motor. Eddie is, in the words Rand uses to describe Dagny, a child of the Industrial Revolution. He recognizes the benefits to human life from inventions like Rearden Metal and Galt's motor, from new methods like Ellis Wyatt's process for extracting oil from shale, and from industrial production, like that attained by Rearden Steel. In his lifelong devotion to the railroad, Eddie demonstrates his commitment to industry and technology, to the scientific research necessary to create them, and to the mind's role in promoting human wellness on earth. The theme of Atlas Shrugged is the life-giving nature of rationality, and Eddie is as dedicated to the mind as any of the great thinkers in the story.

Eddie doesn't possess the brainpower of Dagny, Rearden, or Galt, but he is as fully rational as they are. Galt explains that rationality is a commitment to the facts — an inviolable willingness to face reality, no matter how painful, frightening, or unpleasant the truth may be in a specific case. Rationality means never placing any consideration above one's honest grasp of the facts. Eddie practices this method as fully as Galt. His rationality is shown throughout the story, but his early dialogue with James Taggart regarding the Rio Norte Line is a specific example. Eddie tells Taggart that there's been another wreck, the track is shot, and the Phoenix-Durango provides superior service. Eddie also says that the railroad can't wait any longer for Orren Boyle to deliver new rails. Taggart argues that if his company can't get the rail because of unavoidable delays at Associated Steel, nobody can blame him for Taggart Transcontinental's shoddy track or poor service. Eddie seeks to fix the track, but James Taggart only looks to avoid blame. Where Eddie is concerned with the facts, Taggart's sole regard is for public opinion. The difference between their specific concerns reflects the deeper difference between their cognitive methods. Taggart's thinking is ruled by the opinions of others; facts rule Eddie's thoughts.

Eddie's character demonstrates the difference between intelligence and rationality. Intelligence is intellectual ability, whereas rationality is a method. Intelligence is a capacity for understanding, but rationality is a means of using one's mind. Robert Stadler, for example, has incomparably greater intelligence than Eddie, but Eddie is far more rational. Stadler has the genius to make significant advances in theoretical physics, but when dealing with men, he often evades or denies important facts. Stadler tries to convince himself that Galt is dead — "he has to be," he says — and that no connection exists between the prodigy he taught at Patrick Henry University and the man of whom the entire world speaks. Most important, Stadler tries to deny the truth of John Galt's words, though he knows that all of Galt's words are true. He repeatedly pushes aside the realization that, in aligning himself with the brutes, he has betrayed the mind. Unlike Stadler, Eddie refuses to push facts aside no matter how painful or frightening they are. He doesn't deny that the economy is collapsing; that, when the railroad goes, he'll go with it; or that Dagny, the woman he loves, is sleeping with Rearden. Eddie faces reality at all times. He merely possesses limited intellectual ability with which to do so.

Atlas Shrugged shows that intellect is necessary to promote man's prosperity on earth. The achievements of Rearden, Dagny, Galt, and the other thinkers dramatize the claim that reason is the primary cause of progress. But intellectual ability isn't within a man's volitional control. The ability of his brain is something that a man is born with, but he chooses whether he uses it. Eddie's consistent choice to accept the responsibility of thinking is the hallmark of a virtuous man. An individual can be judged only by what is subject to his control. On issues that are open to his choice, Eddie is a man of great stature.

Morality, according to the theme of Atlas Shrugged, involves an unbreached commitment to the rational requirements of man's life on earth. Eddie exhibits such commitment to the end. For example, when the Taggart Comet breaks down in the Arizona desert, the passengers and crew abandon it for a covered wagon, but Eddie refuses to leave the train. "We can't let it go!" Eddie says fiercely. At some level, he knows that he means more than the Comet and the railroad. Eddie won't abandon industrial production, technology, science, and progress; he refuses to revert to primitive modes of transport or living. He'll fix the train and restore transcontinental service, or he'll die trying. He is loyal to the achievements of modern civilization and the minds that make them possible. This loyalty is the essence of his moral stature.

Ayn Rand deliberately leaves Eddie's fate unresolved. His friends may rescue him and take him to the valley, where he deserves to be, but it's also possible that Dagny and Francisco will be unable to find him in the desert and he'll die. Eddie's dependence on the strikers is a final example of the relationship between the common man and the creative geniuses. When the great minds are free to act upon their thoughts, they create abundance and the common man flourishes. However, when geniuses are enslaved, they're unable to generate prosperity, and the common man suffers as a result. Eddie Willers — the moral best of every man — understands this truth. His moral status lies in his veneration of the mind.