Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
“Who is John Galt?” The question, which begins Atlas Shrugged, is used rhetorically, in the place of “Who knows?” Through the first half of the novel, various legends about him are advanced. Approximately halfway through the book, the reader discovers that there is in fact a John Galt, the leader of a revolt of intellectuals unwilling to let the products of their effort be taken by others except in fair trade.
The massive novel (more than eleven hundred pages) begins as Eddie Willers, an assistant working in operations at the Taggart Transcontinental railroad, tells its president, James Taggart, that the Rio Norte Line is falling apart. James does not want to rebuild it, focusing instead on his pet project, the San Sebastián Line into Mexico. He and his board of directors see the line as a way to help Mexico and to profit from the San Sebastián copper mines run by Francisco d’Anconia. Dagny Taggart, James’s sister and the head of operations, insists on repairing the Rio Norte Line and on using Rearden Metal, a new, unproven product, for the rails. At the same time, James gets an association of railroad executives to pass the “anti-dog-eat-dog rule” to hold down competition.
As Dagny predicted, the San Sebastián Line and the copper mine are nationalized by the Mexican government, causing a huge financial loss for Taggart Transcontinental and investors in the mine. D’Anconia in fact intended it to fail, as he did...
(The entire section is 568 words.)
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Rand’s earlier work, The Fountainhead, was praised as a novel of ideas. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand extended those ideas further and established herself as a moralist and philosopher. After completing this book, she abandoned the novelistic form, choosing instead to write directly on what she called the morality of reason.
The events of this novel illustrate her philosophy of humans as heroic, with their own happiness as a legitimate moral purpose, productive achievements as their noblest activity, and reason as the only absolute. Rand’s contribution in this work was to add a woman’s voice to social criticism on a large scale. She grew up in Russia and lived through the Bolshevik Revolution. This upbringing made her a champion of capitalism in its purest forms.
Atlas Shrugged shows the influence of other socially critical novels of the period, most notably George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1948). The most striking similarity is in the presentation of reality as an illusion, with the government able and willing to alter facts through the news media. In both novels, the government takes an overpowering role in people’s lives, to no good end. In her opposition to government control, Rand even borrows a heavily quoted line from economist John Maynard Keynes, an advocate of government intervention in the economy. Several times she notes that “in the long run, we’re all dead.” Keynes meant that the long run, like tomorrow, never comes, so that policy should focus on immediate effects. Rand, however, seems to take the quotation to mean that if the government interferes, society is doomed.
Atlas Shrugged is important also for its portrayal of Dagny Taggart as a female hero. Novels of the era rarely showed strong female characters, particularly ones defeating their male opponents. A successful businesswoman was a rarity. Even more daring on Rand’s part was having Dagny defend her affair with Hank Rearden, a married man, as moral. Dagny is proud of finding an intellectual equal, someone she can respect and who respects her. That attitude surely was ahead of its time.
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Baker, James T. Ayn Rand. Boston: Twayne, 1987. A study of Rand’s entire career. Relatively objective. Gives brief descriptions and analyses of her major works of fiction and drama. One chapter succinctly describes the main themes and ideas expressed in her written work.
Branden, Barbara. The Passion of Ayn Rand. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1986. A biography by a longtime friend, drawn from fifty hours of taped interviews, transcripts of Rand’s unpublished writing, and conversations with Rand’s friends and relatives. Part 4 describes the process of writing Atlas Shrugged, discussing Rand’s life as she wrote the...
(The entire section is 434 words.)