Reclaiming Eddie Willers

[Content: personal ramble, not trying to be rigorous]

When I read Atlas Shrugged a few years ago, it was one of the more intensely disturbing experiences I’ve had.

I remember that Eddie Willers was the only character I resonated or identified with much. He’s also, as far as I can tell, the only (even slightly positively portrayed) Hufflepuff character in the story. And the last we see is of him alone in the wilderness, as the last train breaks down – mistakenly loyal to the train company, an entity that isn’t capable of loyalty in return, and not agenty or cool enough to join the main protagonists in their escape from the collapse of civilization.

That...really got to me. I won’t make any claims about whether Atlas Shrugged is a particularly well-written book, or whether it even contains this message on purpose, but at that moment in my life, it painted a very vivid, compelling picture of a world in which to be Hufflepuff is to be unsafe, useless, unwanted. Incapable of agency or of doing the right thing when it matters. Eddie is an earnest idealist, trying to do his best by Dagny Taggart and her company, and that trait is his doom.

(I was recently quoted a friend of mine saying “a Hufflepuff among Slytherins will die as surely as among [snakes? Don’t remember exact quote]”. Right now, this feels like an example of that phenomenon.)

I notice a desire to push back against that interpretation. I claim that Eddie is flawed, imperfect, and his last choice ends up being ineffective, but not because of his earnest idealism. He’s being unstrategic, not paying attention to the patterns of his world and what will actually work – but I refuse to say that his caring about the train reaching its destination is a mistake.

Loyalty isn’t necessarily strategic, and blind loyalty can lead into disaster, but I refuse to say that having a drive towards it is inevitably a character flaw.

In the real world, it matters if trains reach their destinations. It’s a bad thing if civilization collapses because all the people who could have stopped it walked away. And it doesn’t make someone a fool, or pitiable, or merely a foil for the true protagonists, if they genuinely and earnestly care.

If I were in Eddie Willers’ shoes, transplanted as I am now into the world of Atlas Shrugged – I don’t think I would be blindly loyal to Dagny Taggart, or to her company. I hope I would actually take a step back, take my feelings of loyalty as object, and reflect on what mattered according to my values and how to protect those things as strategically as possible.

Still, I almost hope my journey would come to the same place – stranded in the wilderness on a broken-down train, because I refused to abandon society’s last hope even as everything crumbled around me.

I refuse to be ashamed of that. And, well, it doesn’t have to end there. The scene might fade to black – but afterward, even if I eventually gave up on that specific train and set it aside as a lost cause, I hope I would pack up my belongings and and start walking. Not away, but towards wherever I could keep trying to help.

In the world of Atlas Shrugged, maybe I would be truly alone in that, and thus doomed to failure. In the real world, our world… I don’t think so. I can be an earnest idealist, deep down, and I’m not the only one.